Thinking Together


Collaboration is the mental factory where good thoughts become great ideas ~TheSchoolHouse302

We talk a great deal about working together. Whether projects or programs, we say that “working together” or “working well with others” is a skillset that we want to see in our employees and our potential candidates for open positions in our organizations. We even want students to work together in the classroom to hone a 21st century skill called collaboration. And while this is an important effort to pursue, we wonder about working versus thinking and the contributions we add to the work when we do more than work together, when we think together.

An Exchange of Ideas

Thinking can be described as an intellectual endeavor to rationalize ideas. The outcome is a kind of philosophy or intelligence that can be used as the basis for action. The act of being thoughtful is also synonymous with being selfless, caring, considerate, and attentive.

When we think together, we share ideas through conversation, we consider opposing views, and we come to a common understanding. This is different than working together, which is when we come together around an idea that’s already formed so that we can develop something. Come together to think about why and how we give feedback to people in our organization and you’re thinking together. Come together to create an instrument for distributing feedback and you’re working together. There’s a big difference and it matters for student- and adult-learners.

Thinking Together for Students

First we need to assess if students are really set up to be working together versus setting them up to be together working. These are very different structures. Peak into a classroom and see if desks are arranged in groups, rather than rows. The group structure means that students are ready to be together when they work, but that doesn’t mean that they’re working together.

For students to be really working together, they need structures. This usually manifests in the use of group roles, specified directions for individual contributions to an outcome, and/or time frames for sharing so that everyone contributes. Without these structures, students are likely just set up to do their own thing alongside a peer; that’s not collaboration.

Reflection Question #1: Ask not if students are grouped but rather which collaborative structures are being employed when they’re grouped?

Let’s take this concept one step further to see if we can get them thinking together. Once the collaborative structure is in place, consider the questions that students are supposed to ask one another, the concept they must discuss, and the intended outcome. A practical classroom activity is Stump Your Partner. After information is presented, students develop a key question based on the information they’ve learned and then give it to their partner to see if s/he can answer it (Center for Teaching Excellence [CTE], 2012).

Moreover, if students have roles, paper, glue, and specific instructions for how to assemble a model, then they’re working together. If they are given a conceptual framework, directions to build a model based on an abstract understanding of one, or choice to think of a new way to rewrite history, for example, then they’re primed to think together. Consider, again, Stump Your Partner, which is about questioning, inherent in the strategy are both collaboration (partnering) and thinking (question development).

Reflection Question #2: Is the outcome a new thing (product driven) or is the outcome a new thought (idea driven)?

One last note on how to facilitate this. If the teacher is making sure that students are on task, we call this task-oriented facilitation. (At least the students aren’t sitting in rows pretending to listen.) If the teacher is visiting the groups to pose new questions or listen to the group dialogue with the intention of throwing out another “what if,” we call this thinking-oriented facilitation.

Observer Reflection: Is the teacher circulating the room to prompt kids to stay on task or is the teacher circulating to check for understanding?

Let’s see if we can apply the same logic to adult learners.

Thinking Together as Adult Learners

Have you ever been told to do something with little or no rationale as to why you should do it? Worse yet, have you have told someone to do something without giving them the reasons why? (Post on this thread, we’re listening.)

Too often, we fail to have a clear understanding of what the end result should be before making a decision on what to do. In fact, we do a great deal that doesn’t have a strong rationale for why it’s done. Think about performance appraisals, why do we do them? Just ‘cause we have to…not good enough. Think about forms we require staff to complete, is there a justifiable purpose? Even think about your staff handbook…what impact does it really have? This is all a result of working without thinking. When we do something, we should understand and ask ourselves, to what end? For what purpose?

Make your next meeting fun by bringing adults together around a concept or an idea rather than something that needs to be worked on. Let the outcome be a thought, a belief. Grapple with it. Ask why should we do X, Y, or Z. This might be as simple as flipping the script. Rather than coming together to work on a new walkthrough format, come together to discuss why we do walkthroughs and what type of feedback is useful for teachers. Then, change the form. Rather than coming together to work on the next calendar, outline what beliefs the group has about the school year. Then, revise the calendar. Don’t just work together, think together.

Leadership Strategy: After every meeting, note the action items, goals, initiatives, and programs that you’re committing to. (Highlight the action steps for easy access.) Then, note the philosophical basis for doing them. Without the second note, don’t even write the first one.

At TheSchoolHouse302, we advocate that you list what you shouldn’t do, list what you should do, and list why you should do what you say you should do. That’s thinking together, that’s getting to simple.

Joe & T.J.

CTE. Cornell University, 2012. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

One thought on “Thinking Together

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  1. An article that made me go hmmmm. What would a time audit reveal between the working tasks and thinking tasks of leaders? Thinking together would definitely shed light on our philosophical differences- good, bad or indifferent but probably would free up a lot of time of unecessary tasks that we do daily. Truly challenges Einstein’s definition of insanity!


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