I’m thinking about collaborative learning, and, because of an odd point of synchronicity–leadership. First of all, there’s a video on YouTube that is a focal point of my musing. Alex Hughes, an 11th grader from Greensboro, North Carolina, made it for a Dept of Education contest. He is obviously a student with drive, talent, and resources–all important ingredients for success. Maybe those are not the only ingredients needed for success, but kids who have those can accomplish amazing things. Add some friends to support the effort, and–violá! An award-winning video.

It’s clear that Alex Hughes understands 21st century skills. He’s used technology to engage an audience for a specific purpose in an authentic situation. He’s worked collaboratively with his peers, judging by the list of friends who helped him and who appear in the video. He apparently takes ownership of his learning and shown leadership.

A couple days after I watched this video, I attended the University of Toledo’s graduation. It was an impressive scene, with over 1000 graduates. The usual graduation hyperbole was flying with lightning speed, as was appropriate for the occassion. The keynote speaker was Dr. David Eaglesham, a vice president of First Solar, an international company on the cutting edge of green technologies. As he was exhorting the grads to go out in the world and do great things, he said something along the lines of “In the coming years, you need to all be leaders.” My ears perked up and the wheels started whirring. All 1000 plus grads needed to be leaders? Really? So….who’s going to follow? Doesn’t being a leader imply that someone is there, shoring up the rear?

Which lead me back to Alex Hughes, the embryonic Spielberg. As I consider all the various techniques for using collboration in the classroom, there’s one element that can’t be turned into a nifty protocol or check off box on a rubric: for a group to function well, it needs a leader. That doesn’t imply that we need mini-Mussilinis making all the railroads run on time, either. Alex Hughes evidently is a leader. He knows how to organize, he knows how to get people to buy-in and be productive. While leaders obviously can refine their skills, and people can learn skills to lead, many people are not suited to be leaders.

And that’s okay. Really. For a leader to be effective, people who believe in the vision and will take responsibility for helping make it come true are crucial. Ask Alex Hughes–or President Obama, whose friend Rahm Emanuel is working as Chief of Staff to make Obama’s White House effective. Or any Academy Award-winning actor, who was making the writer’s and director’s and producer’s visions come to life, following someone else’s vision to produce a film.

We need to teach students to be responsible, to be curious, to solve problems, and all those other 21st century skills that are becoming ubiquitous buzzwords–but maybe instead of pretending we can teach them to all be leaders, we need to help them learn how to carefully choose who they follow and which visions they should support. I’m still thinking this through, but I’m considering how to use collaboration in the classroom to develop not just leaders, but examplary, creative, effective followers who can challenge their teams and their leaders to achieve more than they imagined possible. That doesn’t sound as….deingrating, I guess…as it did before I thought about Alex Hughes


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