Physical Orientation Predicts Team Performance (concise version)

(This is the relatively concise version of this post, relatively light on the preaching. To see the full post, with more preaching and more details about the challenge, click here).

I’m sure this has been written about in a thousand other places, but I have some recent evidence to support the idea that small teams that orient themselves in physical shapes conducive to communication will outperform teams that do not. Facilitating a handful of sections of 9th graders attempting a 30 minute challenge (ostensibly to post a link in a forum to a shared Google Doc), in every case the winning team was the one that oriented itself in physical space for better communication, and in every case it was a blowout win. I also have some assertions about the need to design our instruction of all content to explicitly include the development of critical skills (21st century skills, etc. etc.).

Now to the findings. Here are examples of two of the classes, and how they arranged their seating for the group challenge.

Following image: In a classroom with a big square-cornered horseshoe, the team that huddled at one corner demolished the other team, which was spread far apart.

Horseshoe seating arrangement for teamwork

Following image: In a room with individual desks originally arranged in typical grid format, facing front—it was the team that arranged a circle that demolished the other, which had brought their desks closer together, but remained facing forward.
Grid seating classroom self-arranged for teamwork

The obvious hypothesis is that the winning arrangements allows for better communication—likely through the simple fact, in my thinking, that the team members can see each other, and thus pick up on the preponderance of communication signals that are non-verbal. What are they communicating? Likely many things, but my suspicion is that checking for comprehension is paramount to success, because that is what allows for any needed help to be expeditiously delivered. (Of course, dear scientists out there, it is also possible that the physical orientation of successful teams is a result of the already superior team-working skills of the winning teams, but I think the random sampling of the team formation addresses this issue).

There are many other critical skills students can internalize through such activities, and I think that we are remiss as teachers if we are thinking explicitly only of the content we are covering. Yes, I need all these students to be able to use the cloud resources we covered in this exercise, but that “content” is not nearly as important in my mind as what they learned about teamwork and communication. Further, I would argue, and I think the research strongly supports, that this “content” is learned better when it is done in conjunction with social interaction and the employment of various other “critical skills” (see 21st Century Skills, Blooms Taxonomy, etc.).

It was amazing how easily we were able to predict the outcome, every time, within the first 30 seconds of the challenge, based on how the students oriented themselves in space. Except for one, and this was interesting. We had our first class where both teams oriented themselves into team-friendly shapes, and myself and the other teacher in class commented to each other that this was going to be the first close match. Our prediction held, and the team that won did so just barely (whereas all other classes saw blowouts, with the well-oriented team soundly defeating the other). Interestingly, we were still able to predict within two minutes of the 30 minute challenge which of the two well-oriented teams would win, and this was done based on the amount of eye contact, chatter, and getting up to walk over to another team member the team exhibited (all manifestations of the behavior of checking for and assisting in comprehension between teammates, as mentioned above.)

By explicitly having group / team dynamics as part of the learning objectives of this lesson, and by allowing the students to experience the inherent trials and triumphs therein, I believe we were able to be more successful in growing these critical communication, teamwork, and meta-cognitive skills than if these skills were not an explicit part of the lesson’s focus and design.

 

 

Physical Orientation Predicts Team Performance

(This is the more detailed and slightly more preachy version of this missive. For the relatively more concise and less preachy version, click here).

Assertions:

  1. Small teams that orient themselves in physical shapes conducive to communication will outperform teams that do not.
  2. This law of Team Orientation is best learned through doing, and not from being told (as are most things….)

Scene: Classroom, students divided into two teams.

The task: Could be anything, but in this case, it’s designed to give students exposure using Moodle and Google Drive.

Rules of the challenge: First team to have all members reply to a forum post with a click-able link to a shared Google Doc (in this case containing a brief on their relationship with technology) wins.

Limitations: (Limitations increase creativity and innovation – see Phil Hansen’s TED Talk, Embrace the Shake). Each team gets only two questions of the instructor (this forces use of internal team resources, and clear team communication about when to use the valuable resource of a question to the instructor).

Teacher skill development: Practicing letting students trip and stumble until they find their stride as a team. I fear our parenting (mine included) and our education paradigm are depriving people from learning how to solve problems on their own and in groups, and that we have to wean ourselves of constantly stepping in and helping them along. (See Blessings of a Skinned Knee and tons of other resources on this point).

I’m sure this has been written about in a thousand other places, but I have some recent evidence to support Assertion #1; that physical orientation is a factor in team success. Facilitating a handful of sections of 9th graders attempting this team challenge, in every case the winning team was the one that oriented itself in physical space for better communication, and in every case it was a blowout win. Here are examples of two of the classes, and how they arranged their seating for the group challenge.

Following image: In a classroom with a big square-cornered horseshoe, the team that huddled at one corner demolished the other team, which was spread far apart.

Horseshoe seating arrangement for teamwork

Following image: In a room with individual desks originally arranged in typical grid format, facing front—it was the team that arranged a circle that demolished the other, which had brought their desks closer together, but remained facing forward.
Grid seating classroom self-arranged for teamwork

The obvious hypothesis is that this arrangement allows for better communication—likely through the simple fact, in my thinking, that the team members can see each other, and thus pick up on the preponderance of communication signals that are non-verbal. (Of course, dear scientists out there, it is also possible that the physical orientation of successful teams is a result of the already superior team-working skills of the winning teams, but I think the random sampling of the team formation addresses this issue).

There are many other critical skills students can internalize through such activities, and I think that we are remiss as teachers if we are thinking explicitly only of the content we are covering. Yes, I need all these students to be able to use the cloud resources we covered in this exercise, but that “content” is not nearly as important in my mind as what they learned about teamwork and communication. Further, I would argue, and I think the research strongly supports, that this “content” is learned better when it is done in conjunction with social interaction and the employment of various other “critical skills” (see 21st Century Skills, Blooms Taxonomy, etc., and Assertion #2 above).

Schools that are able to survive and thrive in the coming years, and more importantly that will best serve their students, are ones who institutionally and culturally embrace the idea of explicitly designing instruction for critical skill development, and who help their teachers develop the skills teachers need to construct these 21st century learning environments in ways that model the environments the teachers are designing for. Saying that another way: teachers will need to learn these new skills — in how to design learning to explicitly incorporate critical skills practice and development — in environments that model the environments they will be designing (real problems, and community-integrated, IMHO).

UPDATE 9/13/13

We had our first class where both teams oriented themselves into team-friendly shapes, and myself and the other teacher in class commented to each other that this was going to be the first close match. Our prediction held, and the team that won did so just barely (whereas all other classes saw blowouts, with the well-oriented team soundly defeating the other). Interestingly, we were still able to predict within two minutes of the 30 minute challenge which of the two well-oriented teams would win, and this was done based on the amount of eye contact, chatter, and getting up to walk over to another team member the team exhibited.

 

Online Education is Not the Disruption

http://www.flickr.com/photos/tigergirl/1506928361/sizes/m/I recently returned from the first ever Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools (OESES) conference in Southern California. Overall a pretty good conference, and on a topic that all schools need to be looking at seriously as they plan for the future. While I am interested in the topic of online education, and I think that it is important to stay abreast of the latest developments in all learning spaces and trends, what I was struck most with was my aversion to thinking about online education as the disruption that education needs to move to bring it to the next level of efficiency and efficacy. I’ve actually been meaning to write this blog post ever since reading Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson. The premise of the book, and indeed of the conference (Michael Horn keynoted) is that online education is the growing disruption that will — and needs to — alter the heart of our education systems. I disagree. Continue reading

Socrates Was Wrong

(Originally posted on the Cooperative Catalyst)

Socrates was wrong?


I don’t believe that necessarily, but read on and you’ll see why I wrote it (on top of shooting for a subject line controversial enough to increase the open rate of my post 🙂

I attended a workshop this summer at the Right Question Institute in Boston. We spent two days working hands-on with the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), a process developed over the last 20 years to help people improve their question-asking skills. The technique was originally developed during work with parents from low income schools when parents said they were not getting involved in their children’s schooling because they did not know what questions to ask the teachers. The technique was then adopted by the medical community for use in patient advocacy development, and has more recently been moving into the education arena. Continue reading