written for Debbie by Scott Silver


“…being human is a team sport. We cannot be fully human alone.”

— Douglas Rushkoff, Team Human


Recently, in an unguarded moment from one of my toughest students, she explained to another teacher that she liked my class because she is learning to be more independent and has begun to enjoy working with peers even though, as she says, “I don’t like people.” My classroom during a math task is noisier than most and gives some of my “control freak” colleagues anxiety. But the job, in my view, is not to feed students algorithms and vocabulary for them to regurgitate. I believe my job is to teach them to be critical thinkers that rely on working cooperatively with their team and become better people. Math knowledge is simply a by-product of this vigorous pursuit to connect to each other, face to face, and productively struggle together.

Evolution is less a process by which one individual progresses over another via a competitive advantage, than a cooperative endeavor where we advance together by managing our social relationships. The most successful of us create and nurture a healthy social “ecosystem” of cooperative relationships that help us learn and successfully adapt to the world around us.  Getting along with each other, at work, at home, and in our community is a competitive advantage for the success of any group and the individuals within that group.

This type of thinking, one that emphasizes cooperation and collaboration, can transform a classroom from a teacher-driven model that promotes compliance and incremental success to one that is student-led and thrives on optimism, and conflict-resolution, views mistakes as pathways to success, and promotes a belief of being stronger together. When students have meaningful roles in the classroom, regularly exchange feedback with peers, and learn how to work through frustration and conflict, they develop confidence and empathy and take ownership of the learning taking place in the classroom.

The same student also mentioned that she used to want to “kill her classmates” because “they irkin’”. She said she gets in less trouble now because she’s learned how to “talk it out”. She even said she liked helping them because “it’s easier when we all understand.” “Weird that we’re talking about math class,” she said. The most successful of us are in our current  position because of mutually beneficial relationships.

Despite a recent emphasis on individuality and personal identity, humans spent thousands of years advancing by adapting socially and working together. In the digital age, our kids spend much of their time interacting through screens. They are often disconnected from the effect of their words on others because they are not engaging with them face to face. I see many students go directly to fighting or severing relationships over resolvable conflicts, most of which occur over social media. Giving students a chance to work out their differences, work through frustration together, and find success by relying on each other instead of trying to win some imaginary prize will help them have a more meaningful and lasting learning experience.