09 May 2011

Teamwork Saves Lives and Time

"I am a Warrior and a member of a team."

That line from The Soldier's Creed might apply even better to students. While individual achievement is on everyone's mind, teachers all want to develop soft skills in their learners.

One of the most valuable of those skills is teamwork, and it's here that teachers can take some tips from Army trainers. Needless to say, Army operations rely on effective team interactions.

A course on the topic, developed by the Army, gives some really useful insight.

“You get what you pay for; if you want teamwork, you must reward it.” When teachers demand (or even merely hope) that students work together, what are they doing to incentivize it? How many points is good team work worth versus neat homework or participation?

I made a parent angry in my math class by grading students on teamwork. The concerned mother assured me that her son would earn As were it not for his deadbeat teammates. I stood firm, insisting that I was just as interested in his ability to cooperate with and communicate to peers as I was of his demonstration of individual  knowledge.

Even if he never joins the Army and has to deliver cover fire for his buddy who is bounding toward the enemy, he will likely land a job that requires team play. And one of the greatest lessons we can give our students-- far more important than how to find the solution set for a system of inequalities-- is the ability to cooperate and lead a team.

My incentive was to require classwork to be done in teams, with a strict formula for its evaluation. Each team's "foreman" would staple individual work into a packet. I graded random problems from the packet en toto, and assigned each team member the same corresponding grade.

The format lent itself to another team building recommendation from the Army: ensuring that responsibilities and decision making are clear. My math teams had specific roles assigned to each member.

There is no magic formula for bringing "community" to a team other than a sensitive leader who develops relationships based on understanding members' strengths and weaknesses. Students can learn how to be  good, sensitive leaders. They know what their peers can do well.

They also need to learn to communicate. In an effective team, everyone knows 1) what they are trying to accomplish; 2) why; and 3) how.

Then the fun begins. Conflict is inevitable, as any Soldier will tell you (Just ask the NCOIC of our detachment who was almost accosted for joking about throwing balloons full of feces at a snoring Soldier). But conflict should seen as an opportunity to grow, and teachers need to recognize those opportunities to teach skills beyond keeping the volume down or "staying on task."

Certainly the Army model has major shortfalls. Conflict is often resolved by stubborn seniors, who operate on the "that's how it's done in the Army" paradigm. But when teams are clicking, seniority takes a back seat to group decision-making. Even tough leaders can get their groups to solve problems together.

Creativity can get students beyond the impasse, as can having them write down their understanding of the expectations and plans.

After all, until students get comfortable in assuming a variety of roles within the team, we are the leaders. And,
“[The leader’s responsibility is] to clarify the team goals, to identify those issues which inhibit the team from reaching their goals, [and] to address those issues, remove the inhibitors and enable the goals to be achieved.”
Building teams is a process that never ends, and there is much more to it than the few ideas above. And though students aren't facing life-and-death situations in the classroom (hopefully) they can take another lesson from the Soldier and his creed:

"I will never leave a fallen comrade."

Teams help students understand that mutual success is good for the individual, too.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Rich,

    Thanks for being such a reliable source of inspired and relevant posts. Teamwork, and what it truly is and how it makes things work is one of my favorite and lasting lessons from my Army days that I esteem as invaluable.

    You are right to hold your ground with the parent, since students/people truly need to know the idea of teamwork and that each part comprises, therefore, affects the whole.

    Best to you, Esther and the babies!

    Blessed wishes,