Teamwork in Education

This article is the product of experience I did not expect to have when I began teaching history at the university level in 1969. My understanding of education then, like most of my peers, was very limited. I had been to graduate school and could talk before groups, so I was qualified to be a teacher. I had taken no education courses. Lecturing to communicate information on my academic subject was expected as I did research for publishing so that I could gain academic advancement. When I began to be concerned about the problems of students whose reading, writing, and study skills were lacking, I was told that spending class time and passing out materials on those subjects was not really appropriate. My job was to “teach history, just history.”

Being drafted during the Nixon years of the Vietnam War took me away from the career path I expected to follow. There was no re-employment right for veterans with universities as there were for many other employers and I was unable to complete my dissertation during military service. Therefore, I was unable to return to university teaching and ended up in a job with a large state agency. In the course of a thirty year career, I became an Organization Development consultant working with top managers and their supervisors. Developing teamwork became a specialty. I was an early advocate of quality circles which developed in Japan. As the American interest in Japanese techniques faded, the focus on teamwork remained as a legacy that has gained increased importance as downsizing and computing technology continue to revolutionize the American workplace.

Upon retirement, I returned to teaching history at two institutions of higher learning. The educational environment has changed radically since 1969. Today faculty are expected to be concerned about student engagement and retention as a measure of institutional success. Use of groups and teamwork is one strategy that is encouraged so that students become more involved and not just passive recipients of lectures.

The purpose of this article is to share how I apply my experience with teamwork in an educational setting and why I think using teams is important. One problem is that most academics lack the practical experience with teamwork gained in other work settings. This article outlines principles anyone can follow to begin using teams effectively and confidently without needing to dig into all the academic literature on the subject.

This article explains briefly: (1) why collaborative teams are needed in education; (2) why they are difficult to achieve; and (3) how to go about teaching collaboration.

Why Collaboration?

Education in the United States has been in crisis since about the 1950s when the purposes of education began to change. The philosophies and approaches we inherited from Europe focused on developing an elite, teaching them skills and values for leadership as well as literacy and information. With the spread of more democratic approaches and values, the purpose seemed to become basic literacy and informational content. Literacy came to mean ability to read, write, and calculate at designated grade levels. Literacy and information have come to be tested in uniform ways with increasing pressure being placed on test results. It should not have surprised anyone that education of the masses would then turn into tutoring to pass tests in narrow areas.

Literacy in an elite educational system was more than book knowledge. It involved skills and values needed to function appropriately in an aristocratic society. The same is true today. Literacy includes skills such as driving, using internet browsers, computer operating systems, word processing and spreadsheet programs, and other essential skills for the modern workplace. True literacy in aristocratic systems was being able to function as leaders in that society. True literacy today means being able to function as a professional in whatever field one chooses. Today people do not stay in the same job or even career for their adult lives, so they must be prepared to function as professionals in a wide range of fields.

My job these days is to teach survey history courses at two institutions of higher learning. The subject is history, but the standard of performance is professionalism. The purpose is to turn out students who are functionally literate not only in history but in the skills necessary to function as a professional in today’s world.

What does this have to do with collaboration? My contention is that collaborative teamwork is a skill as much in demand today as reading, writing, calculating, driving, and using computers. Furthermore, real collaboration engages students as they participate actively in their own learning and help or receive help from peers to perform at higher levels. Many educators are eager to see teams used because they should produce higher quality products as the bar is raised when peers challenge each other and raise questions some would not have considered.

But there is a danger if teamwork is not used correctly. Students often think only in terms of “group work,” which means splitting up a task so each does less work and then throwing together an uneven product indicating less quality than would have been submitted by many students individually. When better students hear of teamwork, they may think it means they do the work of the poorer students who then get a better grade. The poorer students also have that same idea and are looking for a free ride.

Most faculty members and students will say they know what collaboration and teamwork are, but they don’t really understand them. One problem is that faculty members themselves have not been taught the basics of collaboration even when they often work in committees and other work groups. They too need to learn this aspect of literacy for today’s world.

Why Does Collaboration Seem Difficult?

Teamwork seems easy. The concept isn’t difficult. It’s doing it that makes you aware that it is not as easy as you thought. Too often people start to require it and then back down when things don’t go as smoothly as hoped so that many end up saying collaboration is hard to achieve.

The first point to realize is that collaboration is a skill like walking, running, driving, riding a bicycle, or swimming. Everyone can and will learn it with practice. Walking, for example, is a difficult skill that babies master slowly. Bumps and bruises on the rear end happen as babies figure out the multiple adjustments needed to keep their balance. When learned, we all do very complicated movements all the time without thinking about them because a skill has been mastered. The same principles apply to running, swimming, driving, or riding a bicycle. Once learned, even when you don’t use those skills for a long time, you can come back to them and quickly do them without giving thought to the many small decisions that are constantly made in order to perform the operation.

The second point is that there is often tremendous resistance to learning collaboration. Good students and employees want to achieve personal success, not bring a group along with them. Individuals who feel competent and powerful share both competence and power in teamwork. The star athlete who gets the headlines is what many people want to be rather than one member of the team who gets to play but doesn’t stand out.

Learning the value of teamwork can be a very humbling experience for those who feel they are extremely smart and competent. Really important accomplishments in our world today are essentially collaborative – from making movies and most art forms to running big corporations. When real teamwork happens, competent people learn that the group was smarter than the solo work of any really smart member. Studies have shown that group results can outperform individual results.

The third point, then, is that there is some pain in the learning process – bumps and bruises, embarrassments, times when things seem to be getting out of control. Teachers who use teams must be clear in setting expectations and firm in enforcing the rules if they are to get students to overcome resistance and fear of pain so that they learn the skill by doing it. Once it is learned, the students will feel more comfortable and even enjoy it as a genuinely participative form of learning.

How to Teach Collaboration.

There is a lot of information that can be learned. Principles of adult education are important. Group dynamics and creative thinking techniques can be useful. There is also much information on stages of team formation to make people comfortable with the various forms of conflict that naturally occur in teams. Sometimes academic writings lay out step by step processes for negotiating contracts or constitutions and other procedures that sound like they are guaranteed to produce success. All of this is good information – but it tends to make something simple appear far more complicated than it is.

There are three basic requirements for successful collaborative teamwork: (1) a meaningful assignment or objective to accomplish; (2) rules ensuring full participation of each member in following the rules of the assignment to produce a team result; and (3) teachers sticking to their guns to insist that the rules are followed and enforced.

A meaningful assignment creates pressure on a group that leads to productivity. Most of us are aware of football games in which the teams perform better as time is running out and pressure mounts. That pressure seems to pull teams together so they step up several notches in the closing minutes, often overcoming a great deal of stumbling that happened earlier in the game.

Teams must have clear and specific goals and expectations. Assigning a group to study together doesn’t produce measureable outcomes. It is measureable outcomes that motivate. One method that can work is to have teams work on presentations so that the entire group is graded on the quality of the final product. This method can work in most academic disciplines.

Rules for full participation can become complicated, but I believe that three simple rules are the key. They are easy to explain; however making them happen takes consistent enforcement. The three rules are: (1) rotating leadership; (2) consensus decisions; and (3) final team review.

All too often some students will talk more than others. Sometimes that means the brighter ones end up doing most of the participating. It is a good idea for one or two people to take the lead at times in coordinating or developing something for group consideration. It is important to find a way that is directly connected to the assignment to force groups to rotate leaders so that everyone is forced to provide guidance and no one gets a free ride.

The most difficult team skill to learn is how to make consensus decisions. One way to make them happen is to outlaw voting as part of decision-making. Whenever votes are taken, there are those whose voices dominate and those who passively go along. Students need to understand that unanimity is not the objective but a decision to which everyone consents. In consensus decision-making, everyone has a veto. If anyone has a concern about a proposal, they must be listened to and the group must find a way to reach a resolution that everyone can live with and agree to accept responsibility for. Consensus requires open airing of concerns and discussion that seeks to find a way to satisfy the concerns of every member. Of course these decisions must be within the rules laid out for the assignment so that the group does not have authority to rewrite standards given by the teacher.

The third rule is to require each team to formally and thoroughly review the finished product to ensure group examination of every detail and consensus affirmation of the product before submitting it. There is no room for allowing someone to make quick changes at the finish and turn in something the group says didn’t really represent what they thought had been agreed on.

The bottom line for evaluating the effectiveness of teamwork is the final product. If it is lacking in quality in significant ways, you can be sure the three rules of collaboration were not followed. Students will complain and find all sorts of excuses for making exceptions to the three rules. The role of the teacher is to be clear on the boundaries of the assignment and enforce them. That kind of pressure is what is needed to get students to follow through in using the expected skills.


Use of collaborative teams is a necessary skill in today’s professional world. It can also raise the quality of student engagement and of educational outcomes. The difficulty is that teachers must learn the essentials of teamwork, build them into assignments, use simple and clear rules, and then enforce in spite of resistance. Our educational goals today should not be to turn out specialists in one discipline or another, but professionals equipped with the skills needed to succeed in a number of possible careers. Collaborative teamwork is one of those life skills today.