Boys, Girls, and Collaboration

Posted by Skip Johnson on October 29, 2014

I came to school one Monday morning to discover that the contractor who had installed our new playground over the weekend left behind a two cubic yard pile of Fibar—a kind of wood chip used at the base of climbing structures. Being a resourceful principal, I asked for student volunteers to help move this material from our lower school to the garden in the upper part of the campus. About ten fifth and sixth grade boys assembled around the material during lunch. I provided a wheelbarrow and some shovels, and, pointing to the garden on the slope above us, I gave one simple direction: “We need to move this stuff from here to there.”

I figured they would load the material, wheel it down the hallway past three classrooms, go up the pathway on the outside of the campus, through the gate, and dump the stuff in the garden without much intervention on my part. At the beginning of this process two would-be leaders emerged. I’ll call one the drill sergeant and the other the labor negotiator. The drill sergeant took command immediately. He decided who got a shovel, who would commandeer the wheelbarrow, and who would just standby. The labor negotiator, on the other hand, offered compromise and sharing. He proposed a plan that would involve everyone getting an equal shot at every activity. Problem was, the troops wanted nothing to do with either leader; they just wanted to shovel Fibar, push the wheelbarrow, and finish the job. They could manage this without a leader, bossy or sensitive, even if it meant arguing with each other every step through the process.

Incipient anarchy

What ensued bordered on anarchy. The first conflict was over shovels. There were six shovels for ten eager beavers. The second conflict was again over shovels. The boys did not know how to use them properly. Half the shovels had round blades and half were flat. They soon discovered that the flat blades would not easily penetrate the Fibar when attacked in the middle of the pile. However stubbornness prevailed as they tried no other approach. The third problem was the wheelbarrow. Everyone wanted to the be the driver. Ultimately, I stepped into the fracas, assigned roles, and the Fibar was moved.

That scene occurred about ten years ago. In the last two years, we have become a STEM Magnet School with emphasis upon critical thinking, creativity, communication, and most profoundly, collaboration. Many of our learning activities are project-based and incorporate these “4C’s,” with collaboration the essential element. We are also converting our library and former computer lab into a STEM resource center. A few days ago, as part of this conversion, we took delivery of a large amount of LEGOS. These needed to be separated by color and placed into bins in the resource center. Some fourth grade girls had just asked me if they could do service for the school, so I recruited them to do the sorting. They arrived in the library during lunch with a couple of fifth grade girls in tow. I showed them the six boxes of LEGOS and described the task: “Each box contains six packages of LEGOS. Each package contains 100 pieces in six assorted colors. The task is to separate the individual pieces by color and place them back into the boxes so every box holds pieces of a single color.”

The girls took all the packages out of the boxes, began opening them, and sorting by color. I stood back and watched. While the scene did not specifically conjure images of shovels and Fibar, I did have a definite feeling of deja vu.

“I have an idea.”

Within three minutes one of the girls said, “Let’s stop, I have an idea. Why don’t we each do a part of this without each doing the same thing.” In another couple minutes, they had created a division of labor: package openers and spreaders, sorters by color, and pickers who would take the sorted pieces to their respective box. In about twenty minutes they were finished. What impressed me the most was that they listened to the first girl’s idea, offered suggestions on how to implement it, volunteered to take on specific roles, and completed the task. If that is not true collaboration then I do not know what is.

Why the difference?

Students working in the Longfellow School Garden
What explains the difference in the way each group of students performed? I am hoping that it is our emphasis on teaching collaboration in the classroom. The girls have had to deal with open-ended tasks and project-based learning for at least two years. Ten years ago, when I tasked the boys with moving the Fibar, their classroom experience was pretty much of the direct instruction, follow specific directions, and repeated drill variety. On the other hand, some might argue the difference could be due to gender—boys compete, girls cooperate. Or it might simply be differences in the personality mix of each group of individuals. Regardless, what I’d like to know is, would the shovel brigade have responded differently if they had gone through a couple of years of well executed Common Core in a project-based learning environment? Perhaps I should order several cubic feet of Fibar and find out!


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Skip Johnson

Skip Johnson is principal of El Crystal Elementary School in San Bruno, California and a member of the TICAL Cadre.

One thought on “Boys, Girls, and Collaboration”

  1. Way back when I was a Kindergarten teacher. We did a lot of activities that involved programming robots. I did notice that at the ripe old age of five, boys and girls approached the programming challenges in completely different ways. Gender inspired? To a degree, I think so. That said, I’d like to cast a vote for the power of PBL!

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