Teaching Accountability is Essential for Student Collaboration5 min read

One of the wisest people in history once said, “”There are all kinds of courage. It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends. I therefore award ten points to Mr. Neville Longbottom.”

Harry Potter fans, you’re welcome.

Professor Dumbledore awarded Neville those points because he took the unpopular action of holding his friends accountable. They were breaking the rules, despite the fact that their actions would affect everyone else, and so he stood up to them. Neville took a pretty unpopular position at the time, but it was the right one and it paid off in the end.

One of the most difficult aspects of collaboration, one that lasts long into adulthood, is accountability. We struggle to hold others accountable for fear of disrupting harmony. Significant research shows that humans are hard-wired for peacemaking. People are communal and desire relationships and acceptance, and try to avoid conflict at all costs. Being agreeable and not speaking truth to an issue is a short-term fix. It helps us to avoid hurting someone’s feelings while also not feeling uncomfortable ourselves. Most people seek peace, and overall, an innate desire to seek peace is a good thing.

Peace is great, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid conflict.

However, while peace is of course important, avoiding conflict can often be to our detriment. Delaying temporary discomfort over and over inevitably leads to serious issues later on.

I can’t even count the number of times students have come to me at the end of a group project complaining that they had to do all the work and everyone else in the group slacked. I always respond by asking, “What did you do to hold them accountable?”

Usually, the answer is, “Nothing. I didn’t want them to be mad at me.”

I have to empathize with this point. We don’t want to sow discord, especially with friends and the people we are close to, and this can lead to being exploited or taken advantage of.

I once worked on a team of teachers with the task to innovate the English curriculum. Everyone on the team agreed to this objective and committed to see it through. However, when we’d meet, one teacher was always on his laptop grading papers or even scrolling through Facebook. He never contributed to conversation or offered to research a question someone might have. And the results showed. His class was stuck in another time period, and our department team never really achieved our whole vision because there wasn’t complete buy-in. We wanted to change school culture, but that wasn’t possible if a large portion of students in our school were in a class that was stuck in the past.

As a teacher who was passionate about finding new ways to engage students and building an English department known for incredible learning experiences, this was incredibly frustrating. As a team, we decided to make these changes, but they couldn’t happen without everyone being on board. And this guy would not get on board.

I remember complaining to my wife, talking to other co-workers about it, venting to my principal, and even blogging about the situation.

But guess who I didn’t talk to about my frustration?

You got it. I never once talked to this other teacher about the frustrations I was having with him. The truth is, he was a really nice guy, and we always had a great time talking about football or our families. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, and I didn’t want to feel uncomfortable bringing up the issues.

I avoided the temporary discomfort. As a result, the conflict was never solved. Of course our team achieved some success, but it never attained its full potential. Our mission required collaboration, and it wasn’t fully getting it.

There’s a chance this teacher had no idea people were not happy with his lack of involvement. He might have assumed that no news is good news. He also could have had reservations about new protocols and the mission we were all on, and just did not voice them. I tend to be loud and outspoken, and it’s entirely possible he felt unheard and so did not speak.

It’s also possible he was just being lazy.

Regardless, we never found out because we didn’t use any accountability. And so someone could have said to me exactly what I now say to students when they complain about a slacker but did nothing to hold them accountable: “Sorry, but collaboration isn’t just about doing your part. It’s ensuring others do theirs.”

Of course this isn’t necessarily fair, and that’s often the response I get from students. “Why is it my job to make sure someone else is doing their work?.”

It might not be your job in a traditional school system that is focused solely on the individual. But being on a team requires accountability. This ability to communicate and make sure everyone is contributing is essential to collaboration. And people do not have to learn how imperative accountability is the way I did, when three girls in my college class walked all over me, or when this fellow teacher refused to collaborate.

Tools for Accountability

This is the same scenario that happens so often with students, and can make group work so unbearable. However, holding someone accountable does not have to be a difficult task if you have the tools, specific processes, and protocols in place. When students have these and know how to use them effectively, they become second nature. Students realize there is a big difference between holding someone accountable and being mean.

Asking someone to do their share is not rude; it makes sense. Especially, if there is a culture of collaboration.

Next week’s post will feature some excellent tools and processes to help students learn to collaborate and hold each other accountable.

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Trevor Muir

I believe every student has the potential for greatness. And I believe every educator can be equipped to unlock that potential.