Collaboration is Cheating?

One of the four C’s, perhaps for many the most important 21st century skill, is considered in our schools, cheating. Students caught talking to each other during exams are either yelled at or disciplined for cheating. Homework is supposed to be an individual activity and students are punished for cheating if their paper looks like another. In English or social studies, if you are caught copying something or someone without attribution then you are plagiarizing and treated as if you have committed a crime, cheating. And if you are doing a project with a group of students, be sure your work and effort are your own not the work of others or you are cheating. We are training students from the earliest school age to work individually, to “do your own work,” to not cheat. We are still teaching our students to be rugged individualists, independent, self-motivated, and self-reliant. We are teaching 19th century skills.

Today, collaboration is one of the four C’s skills because it is seen, in survey after survey of business, to be critical to digital age problem solving. Creative problem solving is considered a group activity today, and business would no more consider isolating individuals in the workplace than taking them off the Internet. Offices and universities are designed to breakdown silos, to have courtyard and corridors, like this design of the new Google headquarters in London, where people can constantly meet, share ideas, and engage in group problem solving. The best employees are considered to be the ones who work well in teams, who are good collaborators.

Yet, we educators act as if collaboration is either a skill we are born with or magically gain when we require it. Despite the importance given to teamwork and collaboration in sports, we still do not consider it a skill we should learn in school, a skill we should practice in school, a skill that is no different from reading or numbersense. Learning to collaborate in school as a central mission certainly requires us to rethink education from the ground up. But even if we are not ready to take on that big task, we can start by making our classrooms meeting places where silos are not just torn down between subjects but torn down between students, where students are supported and encouraged to learn to collaborate.