Member preview

Planning is obsolete. Coordinate instead.

Teamwork, Motivation, and Education.

One of Ken Robinson’s criticisms of Higher Education is that traditional models isolate students, evaluate them all individually, and create a “disjunction between them and their natural learning environment.” He points out that in a school students are expected to do their “own work,” or risk accusations of cheating that would, outside the university, be called collaboration.

By contrast, working in teams should be one of the most important learning objectives of the education system. Instead of scaring students into isolation, educational institutions would serve their students better by structuring environments that encourage them to work together — particularly because new information communications technologies (ICT) allow people to work collaboratively more effectively than ever before.

The fact is that, when free to act from their own motives, many people love collaboration. In this video, Clay Shirky introduces us to the idea of “cognitive surplus” — which is term used to describe the otherwise idle hours that people are willing to apply to solve real problems in collaborative settings. This violates what is understood to be conventional economic wisdom — that people don’t work for free. (The analogue in education would be that students will not do what is not graded). However, Shirky’s examples illustrate the difference between things that people are extrinsically motivated to do (working for pay or other rewards from other people), and those that they are intrinsically motivated to do (working for “fun”, or the personal satisfaction derived from the work).

Shirky quotes the famous engineer and inventor Dean Kamen, saying that free cultures “get what they celebrate”, but I suspect that Kamen is no longer concerned with collecting public accolades. His personal motives, as he explains them in hiw 2009 talk The Emotion Behind Invention, is more about his dedication to helping others and finding a transcendent cause.

As it turns out, Kamen’s motives are not so much different from those of American undergraduate students (the most closely studied population in the history of science). In this video, Daniel Pink explains how creative labors are not subject to monetary incentives. In tasks that require thinking and creativity, people are more driven by a sense of purpose than by pay (or grades?)

This realization calls into question how we assign group work in classrooms. If we operate on the premise that students will only do what they are graded on and we recognize that group grades allow some students to “free ride” on the labors of others, then we might predict that student work groups will either fail predictably, or result in just a few students doing all the work.

The classic solution to problems of cooperation in groups has been institutionalization. That is, we form bounded organizations (such as companies and professional societies) that define rules of interaction, belonging, and status.

In this video Shirky attempts to answer the question “How do groups get anything done?” He argues that advances in ICT have reduced the transaction costs of cooperation so much that we can now substitute coordination for planning.

The “carrots” (incentives, or rewards) and “sticks” (disincentives, or punishments) available to institutions don’t apply to open organizations with transaction costs so low that any individual can contribute any amount.

One of the implications of moving group work outside the institution means that cooperative relationships can form outside the normative goals of the institution. That is, cooperation can now exist among individuals that are at odds with the status quo ideals of the mainstream. He predicts 50 years of chaos.