Airport book stands and Amazon recommendations are full of business books about the wisdom of the crowd, how to get teams operating successfully, and the importance of leading the “collective” in organizations. The evidence for these claims, however, is not easy to find. The wisdom of the crowd is often the wisdom of the group leader. The essence of leadership is to manage people and groups and create positive environments with high levels of trust.
We know good leaders work to develop collective teacher efficacy because it is a powerful way to increase student learning (effect size of 1.27). So, we wondered: what would happen if we applied what we know to developing collective student efficacy? That is, what would happen if we developed students’ confidence and skills to contribute effectively to group work, and have high confidence in the outcomes of the group?
We have too frequently seen students in groups that do not have a shared understanding of success. In these cases, some students take over, some loaf, some lack confidence and others have few skills to contribute. This makes it hard to determine who learned and who contributed. Rarely do we plan assignments that lead to both high individual and high group performance.
Student collaboration is not as simple as merely placing students in groups, giving them an authentic and stimulating task, assigning the time, and waiting for brilliance. We need to appoint student group leaders with the desired leadership skills for managing others, leaders who can create positive environments and high trust and who ensure all contribute.
After much deliberation and discussion, we wrote a book that describes the value of student collective efficacy and describes to teachers how to develop this in their students. First, we identified the “I” and “We” skills that teachers need to develop to make student collaboration powerful and valuable.
The “I” Skills
To be successful, each student needs to have confidence about their ability to successfully contribute to a task or accomplish an activity as part of a team. Each student needs to be able to work on their own and work with everyone in a team. Each student also needs to have confidence or a shared belief in the team’s collective capabilities to organize and execute the optimal course of action. These skills and confidence need to be taught not assumed.
There are other “I” skills we need to teach such as:
- how to see oneself as a learner, whether one is a high or low achiever;
- how to evaluate the progress of one’s success and contribution to the group task;
- how to listen and welcome turn taking (e.g., not dominant or silent);
- how to identify, confront, and welcome challenges to success;
- how to provide explanations and participate in adaptions to maximize success according to success criteria; and
- how to skillfully resolve conflict, participate in negotiation, and develop communication skills.
Who said working in teams was easy?
The “We” skills
There are also “we” skills necessary to upgrade group work to collective student efficacy, especially skills of social sensitivity. Can students’ stand in another student’s shoes and see the world from their perspective? This involves teaching students how to
- acknowledge their mistakes;
- accept others as they are;
- decode and understand what others are thinking and feeling;
- become social problem solvers;
- empathize with others’ moods and feelings; and
- listen to others in the group and demonstrate that they have listened.
Not every task assigned to groups is conducive to developing collective student efficacy and maximizing learning. Imagine a trivia game, for instance. Once someone in the group knows the right answer, the rest of the group can relax and celebrate. Tasks need to two elements:
- An appropriate level of challenge such that more than one thinker is required and there is enthusiasm to work together to solve a particular problem; and
- To allow for multiple interpretations; that is, more open than closed.
Students also must have clarity: What are the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in the task? The assessment criteria should welcome both individual and group contributions.
Before going into group work, it is important to ensure that all students have sufficient knowledge, confidence, and motivation to tackle the task. Thus, pre–teaching the surface or content knowledge prior to grouping is necessary. Otherwise, some students can be left behind, not valued, and less able to be contribute to the group.
No wonder just placing students in groups, assigning a task, and wishing and hoping all will benefit is not good enough for effective student collaboration! The above might look difficult, but the evidence for improvement in learning through these methods is powerful.
There is one more reason for teaching these collective skills: employers now (not in the future) are asking for communicators, translators, team players, and workers with high levels of social sensitivity. We may hire on skill, but we often fire on will – or lack of skills in working together. A student with higher content skills but lower social skills is not as employable as one with lower content but higher social skills. Let’s prepare our students by developing their “I” and “We” skills so that they achieve “working together” skills. These will allow them to benefit from the power of collective efficacy!