The Agony and the Ecstasy of Collaboration

A few days ago Carolyn K of the amazing Hoagies Gifted Education Page tweeted out a link to an Edutopia article by Robin Newton for educators on how to work with students who have a hard time collaborating. Collaborative classroom learning is hot now, it is even part of new core standards. The article focuses on three reasons students may have difficulty working together on collaborative tasks:

  • Cultural Differences
    Under cultural differences she includes both culturally influenced learning styles, which may make students more comfortable with solo work and students, who due to cultural reasons, may be uncomfortable working with students of the opposite sex or another ethnicity.
  • Confusion
    Students who have trouble collaborating because they don’t fully understand the assignment.
  • Shy and/or Introversion
    Shy kids may be too self-conscience to fully participate in groups and introverted kids might find that the noise and chaos of a group is just too overstimulating.

The article has good suggestions for helping students work through all of the above issues. What was not addressed, and judging from the comments, an item that really hit home with some readers, is the frustration the gifted student feels when forced to collaborate with classmates that are not at their level. The average elementary school classroom of 28 students has 6-8 Level One gifted students and 1 or 2 Level Two gifted students. An elementary school of 100 students will only have 1 or 2 Level Three gifted students in the entire school and there is only a single Level Four gifted student per 200 school children, on average. This means that most Level Two gifted students and essentially all Level Three and Four gifted students have no intellectual peers if they are in regular classrooms.

Having a highly or profoundly gifted student collaborate with their age peers in a regular classroom is like making a 6th grader collaborate with a group of 1st graders — except no one recognizes or supports the more advanced intellectual capabilities of the 6th grader. Collaboration rules, both explicit and implied state that everyone’s ideas are equally valid, everyone should contribute equally, and everyone will get equal credit. Frequently this creates a situation where the end product is either inferior to what the gifted student could have done if he or she were working alone or the gifted student secretly or not so secretly ends up doing all the work, but never gets additional credit for their additional effort. These issues are exacerbated when the gifted student has traits that are common in the gifted population such as asynchronous development, heightened intensity, extra sensitive emotions, a keen concern for fairness, and perfectionism.

The take away lesson for many gifted students is that others are inferior and working in groups is detrimental. This is probably the exact opposite of the lesson the educators and the standards are trying to teach.

Interestingly enough, gifted students are natural collaborators, when they have intellectual peers available. While I and my husband hated being forced to work in groups during our school years, our kids have no such issues. They go to a school for gifted kids and enjoy both structured collaborative activities (such as mandatory participation in state contests) and spontaneous collaborations. They easily and seamlessly form mixed-age groups to create and test computer games and to write fiction books. They form clubs and organize fund raisers and other activities with little adult guidance. Of course they passionately argue for their ideas and can get upset about other’s positions. They are learning the give and take of well functioning groups where all members can make equally valid contributions and the group has to figure out which path to follow. They love working together so much that we have had to counsel them on the importance of doing things solo as well as with their schoolmates. As I have blogged about before, even smoothly working groups can have some unintended, negative effects.

So next time you are lamenting the fact that your gifted student is not performing well in collaborative school activities, take a good look at the group they are working with and see if too wide a range of abilities could be the cause.



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