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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Our kids are team players: Is that the ideal?

“Collaborative problem-solving” is a strength for U.S. teens, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests students around the world.

Working in groups is valued by employers and school reformers, writes Robert Holland, a Heartland Institute fellow, on American Thinker. But should teamwork be the goal of U.S. education?

Working on their own, U.S. 15-year-olds’ PISA performance has been “mediocre, at best, and often closer to worst than first,” he writes.  However, they ranked 13th in the “soft skill” of collaboration.

Holland doubts that “functioning as part of a workforce team should be such an all-consuming feature of education — or corporate management, for that matter.”

He cites Geoffrey James’ argument that collaboration create mediocrity in the workplace. Researchers have found cooperative work environments undercut top performers, writes James. Mediocre colleagues see achievers as threats, not models.

Open, unwalled working or instructional areas intended to foster togetherness and collaboration pose special problems for introverts, who need privacy to be productive. Susan Cain has devoted a book and a blog to fighting what she calls “The New Groupthink” and advocating for introverts. Cain reminds us that “solitude has long been associated with creativity and transcendence.”

“Education should be about preparing well-informed, independent-thinking individuals who can bring fresh ideas to the table,” Holland concludes.

Soft skills, such as collaboration are more important than expertise in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), writes Cathy N. Davidson, author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux.

Google used to hire only “computer science students with top grades from elite science universities,” she writes.

In 2013, after crunching years of hiring, firing and promotion data, Google concluded that “the seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.” STEM expertise came in eighth.

. . . the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, (co-founders Sergey) Brin and (Larry) Page viewed with disdain.

A follow-up study looked at team productivity and creativity. “The company’s most important and productive new ideas” didn’t come from A-teams of top scientists, but from “B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room,” writes Davidson.

. . . the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.

Communications skills are highly valued by job recruiters, Davidson adds. “We desperately need the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural, and social as well as the computational.”

I’m fairly sure that Google does not hire people who are so-so on STEM expertise because they’re emotionally safe for their colleagues or even good at communicating. Critical thinking and making connections across complex ideas, yes. But are these “soft” skills? They’re hard for most people.

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