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I’m not a fan of group work. I have vivid memories of doing “team projects” where I completed various tasks while other members disappeared. As a classroom teacher, I preferred to plan alone, dreaming up projects and planning out units in isolation. I am comfortable in my own mind and I can work alone for hours without interacting with another person.

However, in the last few years, I have embraced collaborative work. I have realized that when a team or a partnership works well the end result is something vastly greater than what I could have created on my own. Whether it is building a platform, writing a book, or planning out a course, I find myself asking for input, seeking feedback, and even partnering with others in ways that were once foreign to me. Collaboration no longer feels like the awkward group projects of high school. Instead, it is a critical part of my creative work.

I’ve been thinking about why this type of collaboration work when so many other types of group work fails. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. It’s voluntary. Forced collaboration isn’t collaboration. This is why I allow students to choose their own groups in grad school and why I did the same in middle school. It’s why I don’t buy into the idea that “friends shouldn’t work together.” When collaboration is voluntary, you are more likely to respect the agency of those involved.
  2. People are dependable. This might seem obvious, but collaboration instantly fails when people don’t follow through on commitments. But my favorite collaborative projects involved people who were willing to hustle and take care of things outside of the specific group meeting times.
  3. There’s trust and vulnerability. The greatest collaborative projects I’ve done have been with my wife, who I trust more than anyone and who knows me at such a deep level. When you begin with mutual trust and you are able to be vulnerable, you are more likely to work humbly toward a goal, ask for help when you need it, and provide encouragement when someone is having a hard time.
  4. The structure is loose . . . but there is a structure. I’ve been in groups where things went nowhere and it was fun for a brief time. But I always left the meetings feeling frustrated by our inability to accomplish anything. On the other hand, I’ve been in meetings where we were tied to tight structures with tons of paperwork and the work became drudgery.
  5. We share a vision. Collaboration works best when we have a shared vision for what we are doing. It’s not an accident that bands break up over “creative differences.” After all, “Hotel California” is nothing like “Peaceful, Easy Feeling.” Sometimes a group fails because they simply disagree on what the finished result should be. By contrast, the best collaborative work involves a shared vision on the finished result and a shared vision for how to get there.
  6. The ability to goof around. I work best when I can work in a casual, relaxed manner. My favorite collaborative ventures have involved tons of laughing where we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. To an outsider it might appear that we aren’t taking our work seriously. However, this sense of play allowed us to work more creatively and think more divergently. It was vital to our work.
  7. We embrace candor and conflict. This is hard for me naturally. I tend to avoid conflict. I am way too easily hurt by criticism. However, when collaboration works well, we are able to speak truth to one another with candor and we are able to engage in conflict knowing that there’s mutual trust.

I am realizing that when collaboration works well, there is a certain group flow experience, where you are totally “in the zone.” There’s this dance back and forth where you forget about yourself without feeling left out.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Ines Bieler says:

    Great article. These points are observable in every classroom. But it’s hard for many teachers and students to give students the freedom of having less structure and being completely free in choosing teamwork or not. As a teacher, on the one hand you have to relieve control. On the other hand you are bound to curriculum specifications.
    So it’s important to get aware of the opportunities of teamwork. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

  • Elaine says:

    Great ideas, John, and I love the idea of letting even middle school students select their own groups. However, what do you suggest to avoid the possibility of some students being left out of groups — of not being chosen by a self-selected group?

    • John Spencer says:

      I found a few things to be helpful. First, I let them know that no one will be left out. I tell the story of being in middle school and feeling completely scared, alone, and left out. I was an introvert and slightly socially awkward. So, they are able to connect with that idea. Next, I have them form small groups at their tables, where nobody can possibly be left out (they choose where they sit) and then, as they work on one activity, I monitor the groups to see if anyone seems left out. At the end, I ask them if they are okay working with that group on the project or if they would want to be in a new group. It’s a quick Google Form they fill out. In general, things are self-managed and they handle things well.

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