Learning about teamwork

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by Bill Zoellick and Sarah Hooper

When students are asked to draw a picture of a scientist, the result is often a sketch of an older man in a white coat working alone, maybe with a microscope. (A couple of weeks ago when students reflected on their experiences collecting data on the clam flat, we asked them to list three important take-aways that they will remember.  One student wrote, “I learned that science is more than microscope stuff.”)

One goal in our work with middle school students is for them to learn that science is not all about working alone but instead involves teamwork. Another goal is for them to learn more about themselves — about what they are good at and about their own habits of work. Just as important, we want to help them see that others are good at different things and have different habits of work, and that these differences can make a team stronger.

So, last week we met with students in Peninsula and Mountain View schools to get them thinking about teamwork. We began by having them write a few sentences about science and teams. They then crumpled up their answers and engaged in a quick “snowball fight” — a good way to burn off some of the tension of working with two adults who they didn’t know and to put them in a more comfortable place for sharing.

The students then gathered up the “snowballs” — making sure that they had another student’s piece of paper — and read and shared each other’s thinking.

After they had shared some of their own thinking about leadership, we led them through a “leadership compass” exercise that provided them with a way to see that there are different ways of contributing to a team. They worked through a couple of exercises that helped them decide whether they were more “North” — task-focused and action-oriented — “East” — analytical and interested in the big picture — “South” — process and people-centered — or “West” — spontaneous, energetic, and willing to take risks.

Once they had thought about their own way of getting things done, we asked them to work and think together about what might be good about having a team of people who are all oriented in the same direction and what might be good about including members with different orientations. We asked them to think about what might help people with different orientations work together.

In our session at Peninsula School, a couple of students said that they might have a different compass orientation for different projects. They said that they might have tended toward North when they were looking for crabs three weeks ago because the work was pretty well set up — they knew what they had to do and just wanted to do it.  But they might be more East or West if they were working on something that they had to figure out how to do all by themselves. That felt like an important insight.

This week we will introduce students at the Ella Lewis and Cave Hill schools to these same ideas. Much of the students’ project-based learning this year will be in teams. We will keep revisiting the question of how each of them contributes to team efforts. Having ways to talk and think about teamwork will be useful and important.