Collaborating for Change – Monkey Say, Monkey Do?

Higher Education December 20, 2013

Every global or domestic summit on education and learning that I have attended this century mentions the word “collaboration” as an essential 21st century skill. Policy maker after policy maker takes the stage and eventually, like a game of buzzword bingo, uses the word along with its bedfellows “transformation”, “reformation”, “change” and sometimes, if they’re feeling bold, “disruption”.

If I’m honest, I don’t think they really mean it or even understand what these words demand.

Our global policy makers are the last people who are willing to collaborate, so why should we expect our education systems and the learners imprisoned by them to be inspired to perform in this way – to work together to solve bigger challenges that extend beyond borders and national interests?

Take the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Here was a typical example of our global leaders failing to collaborate on an industrial scale. Even when the future of our species is at risk they couldn’t put the planet’s priorities over their own mean-spirited national ones.

What sort of role model do we set for our young people when we can’t even manage the planet?

The reality is that society operates within a series of mechanisms or under superstructures that maintain the status quo. Western society functions as a result of subjugating entire continents in order to support its standard of living through access to dwindling natural resources.

The consequences of this strategy are then felt in the severely deficient education provision in these subjugated nations that are rich in resources but poor in infrastructures. Why is this happening?

Some may think I am painting an overly bleak and dystopian view of the world, so let’s look at what happens within Western educational systems.

Our assessment system is broken. We routinely deploy fact-based curricula and examinations that positively discriminate against collaboration. How do we assess collaboration? The fact is that we don’t, because collaboration isn’t valued in our industrial education systems.

Collaboration is defined as learner compliance, where learners obey the rules, arrive at school on time and don’t disrupt the pre-programmed lesson. Those that operate outside these required norms are either excluded or sent to a special referral unit. From this perspective, 19th-century practitioners and policy makers operating in the 21st century can therefore congratulate themselves on achieving a false level of co-operation that delivers nothing.

If one performs a search on YouTube for “cheating in exams” one is presented with an endless list of ingenious videos on how to subvert our fact-based recall exams. 

So how about disrupting the assessment system in favor of collaborating?

How about setting problem-based assessments where learners can work together to solve a challenge and use the digital tools of this century that will form part of their future lives?

In an examination like this students would have full access to the Internet and anyone they are able to connect with. The challenge would consist of working together to solve a problem by means of critical thinking, collaboration and resolution.

They might end up with the wrong answer, if such a thing exists, but what it would demonstrate is their ability to collaborate. We must also accept that not everybody is a critical thinker and people have different abilities, so this problem-based assessment would provide the opportunity for each to bring their own skills.

One could argue that people are motivated by competition more than by collaboration – after all would one seriously suggest that the world’s leading innovators are genuine collaborators?

Who did Steve Jobs really collaborate with?

Brands in the market compete, they don’t collaborate.

Politicians rarely collaborate. They often go to war however.

Competition has spurred human beings to great achievements, but also to self-inflicted disasters. Isn’t it time for a genuine reassessment of the role of collaboration in our education systems without simply repeating the same tired old clichés? I, for one, hope that WISE 2012 will do just that. 

Graham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers, a global think tank of disruptive innovators focused on the future of learning