Collaboration: The Mother of Innovation


Working well with others may be the key 21st-century skill.

Geoffrey H. FletcherBACK IN THE 1970s, as a classroom teacher in Milford, OH, I worked with other junior high school teachers teaching a futures study class for gifted students. We helped kids consider alternative futures while examining possible changes in science, government, the environment, and communities.

We spent a lot of our preparation time finding activities that would challenge the students' imagination and give them opportunities to innovate. We had them build a 5-foot newspaper tower with only newspapers and a stapler. We had them construct model cities of the future anywhere on the planet, with the stipulation that the cities had to include all the vital systems needed for humans to live and work together, from air and water to education and entertainment. Their creations were critiqued by city planners. For all of these activities, we had them work in small groups to complete their tasks.

According to an article by Janet Rae-Dupree in The New York Times ("Teamwork, the True Mother of Invention"; Dec. 7, 2008), we were on the right track. Rae-Dupree quotes a number of experts to show that "innovation does not take place in isolation. Truly productive innovation requires the meeting of minds from myriad perspectives." She quotes Keith Sawyer, author of the book Group Genius (Basic Books, 2008): "Innovation today is a continuous process of small and constant change."

This is even more evidence that we should be finding ways to help students and teachers work together. Books by authors like Thomas Friedman, Daniel Pink, and Tony Wagner, as well as organizations like the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (, have forcefully argued that the skills people need to succeed in the workforce today include, among others, the ability to work together in a group to accomplish specific tasks.

Technology makes collaboration easier. Today's kids collaborate via online games, multiuser virtual environments, and, of course, social networks. Yet we need to help teachers learn to make collaboration a regular part of the teaching and learning experience. Just as important in this No Child Left Behind-infested world we live in, we need to make policymakers accepting of alternative ways of assessing these students-- including technology-based-- so the kinds of skills businesspeople are craving from members of the workforce can be factored into accountability systems. We all know that what is tested is what is valued.

The introduction of new assessments was a key campaign platform of the incoming Obama administration. Let's hope the new administration is an innovative one, and that this is one campaign promise that comes true.

-Geoffrey H. Fletcher, Editorial Director

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.