The value of collaboration

Illustration by Cayla Basson

Joy Mighty delves into the importance of collaboration in our efforts as humans to solve tame and wicked problems.

Last October, after delivering the keynote address at Stellenbosch University’s 12th Annual Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Conference, I was invited to contribute a short article on the theme of collaboration to the inaugural issue of this magazine. The launch of this magazine is one of many efforts by faculty in the Department of Mathematical Sciences to humanize Mathematics and make it more accessible to students. I congratulate the editors on this worthwhile initiative that is consistent with my own views on the need to engage students by using active, collaborative, and experiential pedagogies that involve them in their own learning through meaningful connections with the material, their peers and their instructors. In this article I discuss the value of collaboration and its potential for developing an appreciation of diversity, fostering deep learning, and ultimately developing lifelong social and professional skills.

Two characteristics of today’s world provide the rationale for teaching students to work collaboratively. The first is the enormous diversity of people on the basis of social identity. The human population is growing at such a rapid rate that the United Nations estimates that we will reach 10 billion by 2050. Concomitant with this rapid growth in numbers is the phenomenon of an increase in diversity in all its dimensions including race, ethnicity, gender, age, language, sexual orientation, physical and mental abilities, religion, class, and other aspects of social identity. Despite our size, advances in telecommunications and transportation, the collapse and/or reshaping of geographic borders, and numerous free trade and other agreements have resulted in unprecedented global economic and cultural integration. As many and as diverse as we are, we have truly become a global village with the capacity to communicate instantly with each other across vast distances, languages, and time zones. It is therefore almost impossible to remain unaffected by all the other related trends of the twenty-first century including: the proliferation of new multimedia technologies; the environmental crisis of human induced global warming; terrorism, war and their devastating consequences; poverty; and the rapid spread of previously eradicated or unknown diseases. There is also a growing world food crisis. 70 to 80% of the world’s poor live in rural areas that depend on agriculture. But several factors such as the use of prime agricultural land for urban development, failure to renew this valuable resource, and changing weather patterns continue to deplete the world’s agricultural capacity. The shortage of food has led to steep price increases on staples leading to food riots in some parts of the world as the poor struggle to survive. Yet, according to the United Nations, the world also has enormous wealth that is distributed unevenly.

Illustration by Maria Esteves

The second characteristic of our world that necessitates collaboration is the complexity of its problems. We live in times with high levels of uncertainty and problems that have not been previously experienced. Traditional approaches to problem-solving are incompatible with this brave new world and its complex wicked problems that are different from tame problems. Although tame problems may be complicated, they have typically occurred before and can therefore be solved by applying known procedures and processes. Examples include training an army, performing heart surgery, or conducting wage negotiations. By contrast, wicked problems are practically unsolvable or, at best, there is no known procedure for solving them. How do we, for example, solve the problems of poverty, hunger, crime, or global warming, and when or how will we know that such problems have been solved? Wicked problems are not only global in nature. Every organization, large or small, private or public, profit or not-for-profit has its share of unique wicked problems. Most importantly, one individual or one discipline alone cannot solve wicked problems. Wicked problems require innovation, collaboration, and diversity of perspectives. These problems require new ways of thinking and of seeing the world so that we bring together in a fully integrative and cohesive way all of our available knowledge, methodologies and resources to help us solve these problems. The wicked problems of the 21st century necessitate that we attack them collaboratively.

Illustration by Sylvia Marques

One example is the Human Genome Project, an international 13-year project to map the genes of human beings. To accomplish its goals the project needed the combined efforts of biologists, geneticists and computer scientists. In addition, the inherent ethical, legal and social issues required scholars to cross disciplinary bridges in such fields as law, human rights, ethics, philosophy, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and infectious diseases to name a few. This international collaboration was a convergence of genomic sciences, medicine, and social policy, and involved at least 18 countries. This is clearly a complex issue that is of great significance in our ongoing efforts to understand the genetic make-up of the human being and how that make-up influences and is influenced by a host of other variables. It is not unique to a single country or a single discipline. It is of importance to the entire human race and requires knowledge from just about every field to understand it fully.

Given the scope of our diversity and the complexity of the wicked problems facing our world in the 21st century, the ability to work effectively in multidisciplinary, multinational and multicultural teams, and the capacity to develop creative solutions to shared problems are not only desirable skills; they are absolutely essential. Thus, to be relevant, our teaching should have among its learning outcomes the development of students’ skills in working collaboratively.

by Nino Mekanarishvili
Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

To achieve these outcomes, students should be exposed to a rich variety of perspectives and opinions through disciplinary knowledge from multiple sources, as well as through interactions with students, faculty and community members from a wide range of academic, social, and cultural backgrounds. Collaborating with others of diverse social identities and perspectives helps students learn to think comparatively, shift their mental frame of reference, and apply disciplinary knowledge meaningfully and appropriately as they adapt their behaviour to different contexts. Collaboration harnesses the diversity of cultures, perspectives, disciplines and skills to achieve previously unimaginable integration and unity. Engagement with diversity through collaboration has the potential to broaden horizons; enhance communication; improve intergroup relations and mutual understanding among people from different cultures; reduce prejudice; lead to self-discovery and growth; develop critical thinking; enhance decision-making and problem-solving; increase commitment to social justice, civic engagement and community service; and improve cognitive development and academic success.

I hope that this magazine will help readers explore ways of teaching that encourage students to value diversity and reap the many benefits of collaboration. Best wishes!

Joy Mighty, PhD

Professor and Senior Scholar for
Innovation in Teaching and Learning,

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