The Straits Times says

Making collaboration second nature

School communities, particularly the students themselves, can take pride in topping a global test of students' ability to solve problems collaboratively. It is an achievement to be savoured all the more because of previous successes. Singapore students led the field earlier in science, mathematics and reading skills, as assessed by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development under its Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). The triennial survey has acquired a prestigious reputation as an international scorecard for educational efforts.

While taking satisfaction from the ranking, one must also bear in mind criticism of the Pisa methodology. For a test of teamwork, there was no observation of students as they work with other students. Instead, individual students were tested on how they interacted with team members who were "actually computer simulations of humans", as a Pisa official said. It is one thing to make choices in isolation via a computer, and quite another to work face to face with real people. Human teamwork can be fraught, of course. Some might dominate and inhibit others, while certain pairings could be mutually stimulating. It is also possible for inadequate communication skills and cultural differences to affect outcomes.

Hence, schools must not place too much weight on computer-aided exercises to develop teamwork. Actual interaction for various purposes is vital if the young are to see for themselves the critical difference collaboration can make in many situations. Though there is much for the young to learn and apply on their own, they will increasingly find the need to work together with others in an interconnected world.

From a practical perspective, a set of difficult tasks can be completed more efficiently when shared with others, with each undertaking responsibilities that match his or her strengths. The intrinsic value of collaboration is that a range of views can be sought, and individuals can help spark ideas among others or enhance their work in some way. The more diverse the team, the better. Recent research by decision-making consultancy Cloverpop shows that in business settings, poorer choices are made by people who are largely alike. "Inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87 per cent of the time... and decisions made and executed by diverse teams delivered 60 per cent better results", it noted.

Thus educators ought to find different ways to ensure students move out of their cliques within a school, and also undertake projects with those in schools very different from theirs. Helping the young to instinctively gravitate towards diverse teams will serve them well when they enter the workforce. The spirit of compromise and cooperation they imbibe could prove invaluable as they take on active roles in a participative democracy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2017, with the headline 'Making collaboration second nature'. Print Edition | Subscribe