Collaborate or Work Alone?

17 Jan

I came across an interesting article in the New York Times about the growing tendency toward collaboration in all sectors of society, including education.  Working in groups i.e. “group thinking” is  better than working alone, right?  Not always.

The author, Susan Cain says, “…we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning…Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts …need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.”  Cain expounds upon the claim that, “research strongly suggests… people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. ”  Yet contrary to this theory, it seems that our schools are rallying more and more around the themes and practices of collaboration, group work and group brainstorming sessions.  And not without good reason; there is plenty of existing research to support the move toward more collaboration.

From my experience, it seems more accurate to say that students learn best and are most creative when they are actively engaged in the learning process.  Groups do have the ability to engage students in the learning process, which is why working in groups offers many benefits to a classroom environment.  On the flip side, group work is distracting to some learners and can stifle individual creativity.  As special educators and communication specialists, we know that there is no one size fits all model when it comes to student engagement.  Fostering a breeding ground for learning and creativity requires a highly individualized investigation into each child’s disposition, interests and needs.

Group work and group thinking has its place and in some situations is a crucial aspect of the learning process.  This is especially true when we look at theories of active learners, and the benefits of peer models in early childhood education or when specifically targeting social skills.  But sometimes we do our best work, our best thinking and our creative juices flow most freely when we offer ourselves the time and space to work alone. Uninterrupted. Unconcerned about group pressures and dynamics.  Uninhibited.

For me, the take home message of this article is, like anything else in life, we need a balance.  We need group work and team work to thrive, but we also need solitude and individual time to create, grow and empower.  This is the way we are as humans, and our schools and workplaces should work to preserve this balance, being careful not to get caught up in too much of any one approach.  It takes a master teacher to approach this balance.  Ideally our classrooms and language therapy sessions are a well oiled machine, where all the parts are working together, integrating, and collaborating, yet creativity is not stifled and the capability some students gain from working alone is not overlooked.

Here is the link to the full New York Times Article by Susan Cain:


2 Responses to “Collaborate or Work Alone?”

  1. Hiten January 17, 2012 at 5:51 pm #

    Good post. I think the massive emphasis on developing collaborative skills by schools, is because it will equip young people with an essential skill required by employers – working in teams. Employers like team players.

    I do agree with your point though that a balance is needed. Working solo has its benefits too.

    • Rachel Lynn Eckenthal January 18, 2012 at 8:18 am #

      Hi Hiten, thanks for your comment! I agree with you that many employers look for people who are successful group thinkers and the workplace is no exception to the point Susan Cain was trying to make in her article. In fact, I think the article was even more geared toward the workplace than the schools, but her point applies to either setting. In an office setting, just like in a school, some people are more effecient and do better work when they can work alone, and as a cultural shift toward more collaboration is taking place, we may be overlooking that.

      I also agree with you that being a team player is a highly desirable skill and character trait. I would even argue that possessing this skill truly helps make the world a better place. Moving away from the each man for himself mentality and more toward the greater good has its benefits, but we also can’t ignore basic human nature- which dictates that we alone take our first breath and we alone will take our last.

      Also, there might be a semantically nuanced difference between being a “team player” and “group thinking” or “collaborating.” I think the author was refering to the group thinking and collaborating. And the definitions are similar with a lot of overlap, but its still very nuanced. To me, “group thinking” is a slightly different than someone who works best alone, but ultimately is a team player.

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