The Future Is in Team Learning

Frank B. WithrowBy Frank B. Withrow

The Total Learning Research Institute’s Space Explorers model of team learning emphasizes full participation of all of the members whatever their individual skills or knowledge may be. The five foundation principles of team learning are:

  1. Treat others as you wish to be treated.
  2. Walk the talk.
  3. Respect and value other team members’ ideas and contributions.
  4. Be part of the solution and not a part of the problem.
  5. Hang together, not separately.

Team Learning can be applied to any educational level from preschool to graduate school and can be used to model principles that are used in many professions and businesses. It is famous for its use in NASA missions. Everyone on the team contributes to the overall objective. Teams often first define the objective or problem to be solved.

"Taking education to new heights..."

“Taking education to new heights…”

Team learning happens when a group of students work together to coordinate their efforts toward meeting a specific goal. The team uses the skills and talents of all its members to reach a specific goal. It not only meets the team goal, but it also meets the personal goals of its members. 

A team can create a healthy environment, providing learning for knowledge workers in the digital age. Good team learning environments reduce disciplinary needs and prepare learners to work in the modern workplace. It also develops leadership among the learners. Learners are self-disciplined and mentor each other. Teachers in team learning classrooms are tutors, mentors and coaches rather than sages on a stage. Learners become more responsible for their own learning. Team learning promotes interpersonal skills, operational skills and leadership skills.

Team learning environments create more efficient schools and produce more sophisticated students. It inspires learners to reach higher for their own personal levels of achievement. It encourages members to often notice other team members that may have a problem and to work to encourage those members to become more productive. For example, one fourth grade team of girls noticed that Sarah was often late or absent from school. She lived with her grandmother only a block from school. The team decided to stop by her house every morning and insist she come to school and to be on time. Soon she was one of the more active members of the team. Last semester she had only one tardy mark and missed no days of school for the first time in her life.

Teachers in a team learning environment mentor and tutor individual students, coach teams and become aware of individual problems a learner may have because the teams define the issues. Team learning promotes a feeling of accomplishment in each learner.

13 Responses

  1. Team learning may be a wonderful thing but not always for all. In schools, it’s worse, albeit still valuable for some of the reasons Frank has outlined.

    I’d like to make this comment in the spirit that nothing is absolute rather than in a manner to disparage. Please understand.

    I despised teams, groups, or other sorts of cooperative activities while I was in school — for learning. They were great for social and sports activities. I even avoided them in college and graduate school.

    Why? Because they made my learning much more difficult. I actually went through 20 years of school without once being in a study group. I had excellent grades and would always respond to pleas for help from other students. I played team sports and, after graduating, participated as a member or manager of quite a few teams to create things — learning as a professor and software in my second career.

    I understand well that a group can have dynamics that help many. One explains to another and both benefit with improved understanding. Someone shares an understanding the others have not yet acquired. I understand how engineering projects can require larger groups with their varying expertise to create a finished product.

    I certainly interacted with others in many ways — of my choosing. I did not choose groups. I took Group Psychology in college and was fascinated by what I learned from observing us (the class). That did not change my mind.

    So, when you promote group learning, please be sure to make allowances for students such as myself. Do not insist that every student become a great group member. You’ll find a few who will resist strenuously. They’ll either take over the group or ignore it or pretend to be a part of it to satisfy some requirement. None of these responses will help the others in the group.

    • Team learning can be defined in a lot of different ways. In writing about a favorite set of lessons and curriculum that I combined, the work in team learning was so much a part of what we did that I forgot to mention it. ( Studying the Rainforest)

      Every child is not necessarily interested in every part of a subject in PBL or team projects.

      Team learning gives them the chance to do research above and beyond what is required but to also have the basic knowledge that they need.

      Tasks within a learning space are variable. If they are interdisciplinary the richness of the arts can be inserted.

      Since students are not all the same within the work , there is a way of individualizing, with conferences, and contracts.

      Unfortunately putting students in a class makes them a part of a group. This is a dictate of the way we are told to teach now.

      Looking at workforce readiness, one of the skills that is often touted is the ability to work in a team, or group. Your thoughts?

      I went to Catholic ( Parochial School) we did not do anything in teams but pray. B

      • LOL re you last sentence.

        Teams are not bad. They’re good. With a good teacher, they can be used in many, but not all, learning situations. My concern is with the concept that “team learning is the future” being interpreted as team learning is the only future and all of the future. I do not agree with that precept.

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  3. We each in our own way chart our own paths for how we learn best. however in our modern society we often work in environments that require team as well as individual activities.

    • There is nothing new about working in teams. I have to believe that the earliest homo sapiens did so. If not, they wouldn’t have survived, and we would not be here. Even wolves work in teams.

      In short, there’s nothing modern about it, “modern society” notwithstanding.

      The issue, as I pointed out, is not about working but about learning. I suspect that unsupervised group learning doesn’t work as well as many would like it to. Someone must lead. That’s just simple group dynamics, the kind we studied in my college group psychology class. If the leader goes where a few don’t like, then those few will be lackadaisical contributors at best. Those few also just may learn less than if they just went it alone.

      Someone with skill in groups must be responsible for the groups learning well, for every member benefiting. It’s not automatic. Unless the teacher or instructor takes on that responsibility and does so seriously and intelligently, grouping students may be just so much show.

      I’ve seen a great many references to team or group learning. Of course, there are obvious advantages of this approach. Nothing ever has all advantages and no disadvantages, however. What I’m struck by is the repetitive references to 21st century learning or modern environments. Such references, by themselves, prove nothing and so get my baloney detection antennae vibrating. Ask yourself, what’s so different today than in the past regarding teamwork. How was the Panama Canal built — or the Empire State Building — or the Transcontinental Railroad — or the Egyptian Pyramids? How did our very ancient ancestors manage to bring down big game to feed their families?

      This frequent attempt to justify this or that by saying that things are different today fails to convince me. People have always learned in groups and by trying things on their own. I expect there is not a single person reading this who hasn’t learned something by themselves. I also expect that every single one of you have learned from being together with a few people.

      What’s really different today is that you can form groups virtually and so participate in exchange of information with people around the entire world. Your learning SCOPE for group learning has expanded.

      However, even this activity has its problems. People self-select which groups they join. If you choose groups who never challenge you, you will miss out on the value of this worldwide capability for discourse. Then, there’s no learning, just deepening of ruts.

      In supervised learning (i.e. “schools”), the person in charge must make the group activities worthwhile for learning. Even so, some may “fall between the cracks” — unless the instructor is very experienced and at least a bit talented.

      • Harry, you and Frank are on the same page. You’re simply amplifying what he’s saying. We need to teach our young how to work together to solve problems, and a critical part of that process is to make sure everyone plays an important role and no one “falls through the cracks.” This collaborative learning is, as you say, not new. However, it’s beoming increasingly clear that the world is growing in complexity and that solutions require sophisticated teamwork, a collaborative effort. Today’s technology dramatically expands the bandwidth of communication, radically altering previous notions of group. Thus, collaboration is no longer limited by space or time.

        Our journal, ETCJ, is an example. It’s a collaborative effort. I’ve tried to start something similar among my college colleagues, but interest was very low. It’s only by expanding the pool of potential participants to include the world that we, individuals with like minds, were able to form a team. And obviously, without technology, space and time barriers would have made our gathering and collaboration impossible.

        The critical factor in team learning, as Frank points out, is that each person is a leader as well as a participant. Thus, learning is centered on the student, and the students as a whole, rather than the teacher. This empowers the student, turning her/him into an active learner. The teacher’s role is dramatically altered from leader to facilitator.

        A key point in your comment is the need for independent learners who work best outside the constraints of groups. Forced to work in a group, they’re unable to freely explore their own ideas and are, thus, thwarted. However, the idea of teamwork doesn’t exclude independent learners. These aren’t discrete, exclusive, or contradictory forces. In fact, the ability to think outside the box is critical for all participants. Thus, an effective team is also a collection of independent learners, individuals who have agreed to pool their strengths and creativity to accomplish tasks that no one, alone, could have accomplished.

  4. ETC-J is collaborative and has a good leader, the one with the vision.

    Sometimes, we learn from each other; sometimes alone.

    It’s all well and good to say something such as “each person is a leader,” but that statement ignores the fact that someone must set direction, adjudicate disputes, and set rules or limits. That person also must keep the group on track.

    Recall that among equals, one is more equal. Among leaders, one is the true leader, who may pass the baton to others temporarily but always remains the true leader. It’s just human nature and the only way that teams really work.

    Among younger students (before college), there’s usually few who are ready to lead. They don’t understand the responsibilities of leadership and only see the benefits and ego-boosting effects.

    When a situation demands a team, and most do and always have, you should have a team. Learning does not demand a team but may well benefit from one. At lower grade levels, the teacher must supervise teams closely and make sure that responsibilities have been assigned well.

    I’m sure that many who advocate for teams have similar views. I have, however, run across those who somehow think that teams are new and solve everything and that you should do nothing by yourself. These people don’t see that they’re the flip side of the hermit. My remarks are intended for those who come here and read our musings lest they come away with the belief that the “team extremists” are absolutely right, and we must reform our education systems to base all learning on teams. Yes, I’ve encountered some who do.

    Teams are not new or magic. Sometimes they work, and sometimes not so much. Much depends on the circumstances and having a good leader. We only feel that the world is more complex. It’s really that the world is faster. It’s always been incredibly complex, as complex as the human psyche. Today, we can communicate faster, find out things faster, and accomplish many things, those using technology, faster too.

    We also face larger challenges today. In a bygone era, the extinction of a village may have been the stakes. To an individual, that event was as consequential as the destruction of large swaths of mankind threatened currently. Ultimately, the same sorts of challenges face us. Just take a look at Easter Island to see that.

    I found that, for me, in a school setting, groups reduced my learning effectiveness. I have also found (should be obvious, even axiomatic) that groups can accomplish what individuals cannot. Finally, I have also seen that we all can learn much from being together in a group, but that that learning is real learning — the hard stuff, not algebra. I don’t say these things as intellectual conclusions but as one who has experienced them all from early schooling through to late life.

    I am fortunate indeed to have current technology to allow this sort of discourse and have learned more than I can express from interactions across our new communication medium. Thank you all for taking the time and effort to be a part of it.

    • Eloquent, Harry.

      Re your comment about the young and leadership — I strongly disagree. I believe all humans are born to lead. In fact, leading is critical for survival. We can define leadership in many ways. I think of it as the ability to influence others toward actions that are beneficial to one’s survival and advancement — and by extension, the group’s growth and well-being.

      Thus an infant leads the mother to wean him/her. The student adopts a role that maximizes her openness to the teacher’s guidance. In fact, this is the logic behind democracy. “Leaders” serve the will of the people.

      From the earliest ages, in unsupervised play, children learn that leadership is earned — awarded by playmates rather than appointed by adults. The leader is chosen for her ability to organize everyone’s effort toward a common goal — play. She makes sure everyone is included and having fun. The littlest and least able are given special attention. Everyone is recognized for a special skill or quality and is considered the leader in that particular area. The bond that forms is friendship, and it’s never a matter of imposing one’s will over another. In fact, it’s the exact opposite — understanding how to meet the needs of all in a common activity.

      This kind of leadership is learned in families, at play and chores with siblings; in backyards and playgrounds with neighborhood friends; in workgroups among peers; in college dorms among dormmates.

      The problem is that we, educators, haven’t learned how to transfer this natural ability into the classroom. We need to learn how to tap into the innate leadership skills that all children have, their innate love of kearning, their enjoyment of group play and accomplishment.

  5. I have to remark that training young people to work well in group situations should be a part of education. I don’t wish to see anyone suspect that I would have it differently. The opposite pole of this statement is that we should also train our students to use introspection and time alone well too. Sometimes, a group helps us think; sometimes, it obstructs our thinking. (Consider the “groupthink” blamed by some for the Bay of Pigs fiasco.) We should also have our students know the difference.

  6. I’m sorry not to have been more clear. Each *group* must have a leader. We all have the ability to lead in some way under some circumstances, but that’s not really the issue. My issue is with the effectiveness of a leaderless group. I’ve seen them. Not a pretty sight.

    We’re straying a bit afield, but that’s fine. Teamwork means working together. Unless someone specifies direction, the individuals will go off in every direction based on their separate proclivities. People will fight. You may even see sabotage. Avoiding these results is the purpose of a leader. There are groups in which everyone is a leader in their non-group lives, but they cede their leading to one person for the good of the group — so that it can succeed.

    Perhaps, I’m being too practical. I see teams as having purpose. When we join together for that purpose, we give up some freedom. Even the leader must do that. Without a team leader, the team will fail. I’m not going to make a list of examples. They spring to anyone’s mind. A “group leader” is not just someone who pushes in some direction, as in your infant example. It’s someone who enlists the talents of the group, knows them, resolves disputes, assigns roles, and so on. It’s a formidable job.

    Possibly, we’re just discussing definitions of words. Just as with my favorite example, the “lab,” leader also can take on different meanings in different contexts and for different people.

    My only point is that a leaderless learning group of relatively immature people will not accomplish much learning. Well, they might learn a bit about group behavior. ;-)

    Depending on the nature of the group, different people may lead. It could even be the same people with different goals. I could go on to discuss the non-goal-oriented roles that members play, but that would take us much too far afield.

    Now, after all of this, aren’t we on the same page here? Did I not say that learning to work on teams (as a team) is something we should promote in education? I believe that school is something for everyone. If you learn leadership informally, then some will miss out.

    Interestingly, this thought leads to a big area of interest these days, informal science education. Some are promoting it heavily. I love informal science education. It was a crucial formative experience for my children. However, it’s not there for everyone. I lived near Boston at the time. Some just don’t have access, but they do go to school. Every school should teach science well. We should not have to rely on informal science education to see that every single child learns about science. I like to make leadership and teamwork parallel to that thought.

    Let’s also make sure that part of leadership training lets our students know that they cannot always be the leader, just as we must tell them that they all can lead.

    BTW, IMHO (don’t use the H very often :-)), some people leave school without any desire to lead, as least not professionally. They may do so in informal sports or other activity, however. Is that a problem? A company of 100 people has many leaders but only one supreme leader. Learning to work in a team is much more than learning to lead.

    Back to the original thought. Learning in groups can help or harm learning. It’s quite complex and involves the teacher heavily. At some point, the students can form their study groups very successfully. The fact that I never joined any voluntarily may disqualify me from commenting except as an outside observer. At a younger age, e.g. sixth grade, I saw firsthand how dysfunctional such groups can be.

  7. Great exchange of ideas. THANKS

  8. Yes we have learned in teams and as individuals from the time mankind came together into a group. Today our technology allows us to join in teams across the world or to huddle together in the back of a classroom. Harry, Bonnie, Jim and Frank can share ideas and experiences. But also important others can share through reading alone. Who knows what may hibernate in a youngsters mind? Who know what insight an octogenarian might add to the discussion.

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