Let’s face it, we all talk good game about encouraging collaboration in the classroom or with our colleagues, but do we really do it?

When I think of instances of true collaboration, Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir comes to mind: a blending of individual voices, each making his or her best effort to interpret the phrasing to contribute to the breathtakingly beautiful whole, all with the common goal of rendering a beautiful piece of music together. This extraordinary accomplishment suggests to me a metaphor for what we need to be doing as educators.

Yet, I worry that we rarely accomplish true collaboration, and I wonder why.

With this problem on my mind this morning, I sat down to write this post. Outside my office is a little space we have dubbed the “Teaching and Learning Leadership Center.” In it we have collected books, games, a tired white board, a coffee pot and refrigerator, and a long conference table surrounded by a hodgepodge of mismatched chairs.

Brianna, Melida, Alex, and Karely

Sometimes the students who come early like to gather there (exactly what we hoped when my some of my colleagues and I put this space together), and as they did so this morning, I decided to ask them, “When have you experienced true collaboration, in school or outside of it?” I want to share with you what they told me.

On Urgency and a Sense of Purpose

“In hard situations, when I was camping with the Woods Project and when we could have drowned, everyone worked together to get all of us safely past the rapids in the river,” said Brianna.

On Helping Each Other Reach a Common Goal

“Also with the Woods Project when we were hiking up a really steep hill, someone would ask to carry your tent so we could all get to the top. We were all in the same boat, trying to reach the same destination. So we might as well help each other,” said Karely.

On the Wisdom of the Crowd, Teamwork, and Productive Pushback

“I’ve collaborated best in debates. You think it’s only you, but your whole team helps you with ideas and brainstorming. You might understand one thing, but your partner understands something else. You share what you know, and you guys argue about it, and it makes you better,” said Melida.

On Negotiation and Compromise

“Mine was an optional duet for piano. You have to be 100 percent in sync, but you really can’t be. Each person interprets the music differently, so you have to work together and agree on what you will do,” said Alex.

I couldn’t help but notice that none of these responses referred to work within a traditional classroom. So, I probed further, “Have you ever experienced true collaboration when you worked on a class project?” Their answer was a vociferous, unanimous NO. “Why not?” I asked.

On Extrinsic Motivation and Lack of Shared Responsibility

“One person always really does the work, and it’s me because I care about the grade,” said Brianna.

“We prefer the grade over cooperation,” said Melida.

“It has to mean something to everyone in the group,” said Karely.

On Who Gets to Work Together

“Teachers don’t make the groups in a way that works. They pair students who don’t usually work hard with the good students, who just take over,” said Karely.

“We would do better if we got to choose who to work with,” said Brianna.

On Accountability and Equal Participation

“Recently, we had to do a class presentation. Everyone had to speak the same amount of time. And we got feedback that showed who did what and who brought the grade down. Now the person who didn’t do his job before is working harder to not hold back everyone else,” said Melida.

On Trust, Resolving Conflict, and Leadership

“When I only trust one person in the group to pull her weight, or when I don’t trust anyone, I get really scared. We have to trust each other. Then, sometimes, it gets messy with flashing personalities, and we have to work through that,” said Alex.

“Sometimes we need someone to take on the role of asking the right questions,” said Melida.

So, I challenge us all to honestly consider this: When as educators do we really come together with a shared sense of purpose, to do the hard work of wrestling with difficult and urgent problems, to trust and learn from one another, and to contribute fully to the enterprise at hand?

In his TED Talk, “Eric Whitacre: A Virtual choir 2,000 voices strong,” the innovative conductor describes his transformative first experience singing in a choir as “dissonance and harmony, singing together” to create “something larger than myself.” Just imagine what we could create if we did this, if we truly collaborated, to create a virtual choir in our classrooms and for our profession. Something beautiful might actually happen.

Thanks to Brianna, Melida, Alex, and Karely for collaborating with me on this post.

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