Getting Along to Get Ahead

This article was co-authored with Felice Vazquez, Esq., Special Counsel to the President, Kean University.

What, really, do our children learn in school?

While standardized tests and teacher accountability are the buzzwords of the day, our schools may be missing one of the most important lessons our children must master in order to reach their highest potential: how to get along.

After all, the playground and cafeteria can be more challenging — and interesting — than the traditional classroom. These are places where children learn how to understand each other’s emotions and motivations, how to join a conversation, fend for themselves, be a good friend and how to establish themselves as leader or follower.

None of this is easy. Children need guidance in mastering these skills. The payoff is far more than becoming sociable or likeable. Children can learn to solve problems together, to collaborate, to become an invaluable member on a team designed not to score touchdowns or goals, but to learn something new together.

An MIT study showed that members of groups skilled at collaboration and reading each other’s emotions are better problem solvers, achieving what the study called “collective intelligence.” Without these skills, the Manhattan Project or first landing on the moon would have been impossible. And according to the MIT study, such achievements would have been even greater had there been more women, and therefore more diversity, on these teams.

How can this play out in the classroom? We believe that collaborative learning can be used to supplement traditional lectures. When children are taught in appropriately planned and managed cooperative learning groups, they enjoy learning more, develop more skills — including empathy — and retain material better. In one study, retention improved a whopping 18-fold when comparing to traditional lectures. Groups with greater diversity benefit, because problem solving that engages the perspectives and shared lenses of others whose life experiences differ from their own raises the achievement level of the group.

The recent teacher accountability movement has led some 26 states to establish different learning standards by race and ethnicity, as a strategy to help meet No Child Left Behind federal law standards. We can’t help but question if those engaged in this seemingly self-defeating trend have failed to fully appreciate the important role that diversity plays in proper collaborative learning techniques.

All of us share the goal of eliminating the achievement gap, but we differ about the solution. There is no single answer. Applying different standards could back fire by lowering a student’s self-esteem. Collaborative learning can lead to better student retention and ultimately a more satisfying experience for teachers and parents.

Embracing collaborative learning means school boards and administrators need to be more flexible as to how our children are taught, and some teachers will need professional development. But it is a smart investment, because if our children really learn how to get along to get ahead, everyone benefits as a result of our differences, not in spite of them.

A version of this article was published at The Huffington Post.