Sunday, March 17, 2013

One Brain isn't Enough? Collaborate!

     Ask anyone on the street how much of the human brain we use, and I'll bet that the person cites less than 100%. In 1908, William James asserted that "we are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources" in his notes for the work The Energies of Men. This may be the source of the myth that we only use a small percentage - often cited as 10% - of our brain. The fact is that we use 100% of our brain, all the time. Frankly, I'm sad to understand this truth. For a long time, I have believed that there is an untapped reserve, a percentage of cognitive power that goes unused.

     I'm not sure how this notion survives so far into the 21st Century, since scientists have found ways to map human brain activities through magnetic resonance imaging. Nevertheless, based on this false assumption, we have credited savants and mediums alike with perhaps tapping into some extra percentage of their minds. So it turns out that we are maxing out our noggins. Our three-pound brains became what they are roughly 10,000 years ago. Imagine a Neanderthal driving an automobile, talking on a cell-phone, or playing an X-Box, and you are imagining a "modern" human as well. Prehistoric people tapped into 100% of their brainpower, and so do we. We have more tools and more advanced communication, but I would submit that these resources neither detract from nor add to our brain usage. We are at our individual limit. That is why it is essential to collaborate, and to provide opportunities for students to collaborate effectively.

     True collaboration is synergistic and produces a different result - different questions, ideas, and plans - than isolated work. Note that I didn't say "a better result;" I said "different." Three people using 100% of their intellect do not make 300%, but with diverse memories, experiences, attitudes, and skills, they can develop a fourth and better idea that each of the three may not have turned out. With the right measure of respect, willingness to help, and productive brainstorming, a balanced team is a powerful way to get more out of our collective brains.
      In many ways, our schools emphasize individual and competitive effort over collaboration. Both learning tactics have their places, and as with most pedagogies there is an equilibrium to consider. For example, when divergent thinking - brainstorming perhaps -  is required, a collaborative process makes sense. A group project, however, can turn into a true mess if roles are not assigned or selected and performed individually. Further, I wish that we would teach and facilitate cooperation along with collaboration. Students should learn they can rely on one another and get along well as they find their way to doing so. It is human nature to socialize, and the adult role model can effectively inspire and facilitate this nature toward cooperative learning. Finally, if we want students to work collaboratively, we must model this behavior. It has been said that teaching is an isolating profession. A recent move toward collaboration, the Professional Learning Community model, is a way for teachers to increase their effectiveness while learning together.

     I'm compelled to say again that I am mildly depressed to finally accept the fact that I am using more than 10% of my brain. I'm sure my family, friends, and coworkers are disappointed that I cannot have more, as well. My dreams of one day levitating, seeing the future, or simply remembering to wash whites separately from colored clothes with five, ten, or fifteen percent more brain power are just that, delusions. We are doing the best we can with all of what we have. If we want more, we can always teach, model, and learn collaboration. Why not?

1 comment:

  1. Obviously there is something more powerfully motivating than the knowledge that two heads are better than one, the question is, what is it? One can look at all the PLCs that educators are now obligated to work in and see that their leaders are not intentionally breeding climates that foster competition. Perhaps those leaders underestimate the power of positive re-enforcement, or maybe those teachers so eager to advance want to collaborate, but simply do not know how. Who is to say, it's not a little bit of both?

    Across the country regardless of the workplace, you see the same thing hanging on the break room wall, and it reads, "Employee of the Month". Within school districts it is not uncommon to see teacher accolades at the beginning of the school board meetings highlighting something great a teacher has done within their school. Why do we not reward the very thing we are looking to nurture, teamwork?

    Imagine a sign in the break room that read, "PLC of the Month", or school board meeting introductions that began with, school based teamwork highlights? Surely, rewarding those who accomplish great things as teams would encouraged others to work more in that capacity, but what about those who are not really accustomed to working with others?

    Throughout history we always remember the "Greats" as individual heroes, perhaps its because people have strived so hard for so long to be that hero, that they wouldn't know how to successfully work in a group regardless of how much patting on the back they were promised. I submit that one day, someone with power and authority will suggest professional development opportunities that teach, model, and practice the role of team players within a group, and then reward those groups as groups on that break room wall or at the beginning of a school board meeting.

    Finally, what if we taught those eager to please how to work in groups, rewarded them for doing so, and the trend snowballed out of control into something really powerful? Imagine.