Education for Collaboration

Education for Collaboration

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My hopeful vision for the future, put simply, is one in which problems of enormous practical importance can be solved. Some of these problems are longstanding, such as our continued failure to feed and protect all human children. Others are new, such as those associated with emerging biotechnologies. Still others are the old become new, as with patterns of environmental carelessness that become potentially catastrophic when numbers and technology magnify the ecological impact of human activity. I will not attempt to list them; they are as familiar as the questionable air we city dwellers breathe.

These problems have in common (1) a truly global character, (2) formidable complexity that defies the expertise of any class of existing experts, and (3) a history either anticipated or already plotted of proving intractable. (4) They are also life or death matters, either for individual human beings or for entire ecospheres. (5) The social structures needed to address them do not yet exist, though the State of the World Forum, the United Nations “Millennium 2000” summit meeting, and the United Nations itself are evidence that the social structures needed may not be beyond reach. Moreover, (6) the individual experts capable of making meaningful contributions to the resolution of these problems are exceptionally rare and the habits of collaboration needed for large groups of differently equipped experts to attack problems effectively have barely begun to be formed.

I agree wholeheartedly with Phil Clayton’s assessment of the value of combining many perspectives in our attempts cooperatively to solve such problems, including especially spiritual wisdom and the sciences’ broadly verified knowledge of the physical world and social life. Yet the manner of this combination and cooperation is puzzling. On a small scale it usually comes about as a happy coincidence when two differently trained people meet and decide that tackling a problem too large for either working alone is possible. I have enjoyed productive collaborations of this sort enormously. On a large scale it is never more than briefly glimpsed, as the outline of an unrecognizable shape some distance away is at one moment intimated through swirling fog and then immediately obscured. But the problems we face will not disappear by themselves nor will they be dissolved by two and three-person collaborations; they are too complex for that. We must learn how to become cooperative problem solvers to avoid the ecological and social self-destruction toward which we human beings are rushing headlong in a confounding variety of ways. Thus it is the sixth and last of the common characteristics above on which I will focus the remainder of my remarks.

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It is early days in what I see as a new era: the era of necessarily collaborative problem solving. I have hinted at the array of problems I have in mind and said why I think their solution necessarily involves collaboration. But how should we collaborate? Every vision of collaboration needs to be debated and refined, and the best way to do that is to test collaborative models in practice. Of course. But first each vision of collaboration has to be dreamed and then realized. I think that there is some value in pausing to take stock of models for collaborative research that have already been created and implemented. This promises to be particularly useful within the context of a group of thinkers who are committed to multidisciplinary research, as the group of invitees to the Future Visions conference is. In what follows I shall try to sketch what I think are some of the salient features of successful collaborative research.

1. Successful collaboration requires an expansive skill set

Many of those involved in the “Future Visions” conference have been involved in multidisciplinary collaboration. Each such person knows how truly difficult such collaboration can be. Of course, it is almost effortless to set up some kind of science-and-religion dialogue; witness the vast number of conferences of this kind that we see about us. Regardless of whether these dialogues have an educational, philosophical, or a public-policy accent, it proves difficult to bend the enthusiasm for cross-disciplinary encounters to the goal of solving the actual problems that face us. We are all familiar with how many words can be spent in dialogue situations, and what little headway is made against the stiff winds of social and ecological crises. Effective collaboration for the sake of solving serious problems is genuinely problematic.

The lesson here is that collaboration is not dialogue. Dialogue is valuable but relatively easy. It demands of its participants a unique set of personal skills, to be sure, and people can be better or worse at it. But one does not really need to learn in depth the perspective and language of the other for a dialogue encounter to be successful-which is to say, illuminating and transforming for all those involved. By contrast, collaboration oriented to problem solving rarely gets anywhere without a self-conscious attempt to learn about the other’s point of view with sufficient depth that what begins as uncomfortably alien eventually yields to the understanding and comes to seem familiar.

2. Acquiring the collaboration skill set is painful and difficult for almost everyone

When collaboration demands reaching across the humanities and sciences and into public policy, effective communication across disciplinary boundaries for the sake of problem solving essentially calls for the retraining of all central participants. This is simply too difficult for many people. Even those who succeed in disciplining themselves to understand the inner language and logic of a foreign discipline can rarely become insiders. The geniuses capable of being insiders within multiple disciplines are as rare as they are precious. It follows that everyone else will have to struggle against considerable odds to achieve what this sort of collaboration requires: intimate familiarity with multiple disciplines if not genuine multidisciplinary expertise.

When the collaborative problem-solving ventures in which I have been involved fail, it is most often because too few of the participants have the expertise required to forge and test viable solutions. What counts as a viable solution is often not even known. In collaborative projects involving scientists and religionists, it is common to see participants from both sides with little or no understanding of the perspective and habits of thought-let alone the central theories and bodies of knowledge-of the other. If work proceeds to the point that this lack is acknowledged, it is then possible to see whether the determination really exists to acquire the knowledge required. It very often does not exist, as a matter of fact, but even when it does, the process of learning what is required is difficult and few resources exist to help.

3. Acquiring the collaborative skill set must begin in childhood

The solution to the problem of the difficulty of training people in multiple disciplines is as simple as it is radical: it must begin in childhood when all learning is easier, thanks to especially plastic brains at young ages. The irony of multidisciplinary research is that almost all those who attempt it needed to retrain themselves as adults, sometimes in their forties and fifties, when their capacity to absorb difficult and alien material is considerably diminished.

The generalist attitude to education in the United States (unwittingly, I think) is already amenable to this goal. By comparison with other English-speaking nations, young people specialize relatively late and concepts such as the double major, the core curriculum, and the distribution requirement are treasured in many colleges. This promises to make for more imaginative and sympathetic problem solvers but it merely scratches the surface of what is needed.

4. Some requirements of thoroughgoing preparation for multidisciplinary expertise

Very few people have the capacity for genuine multidisciplinary expertise. A larger group of people, though still relatively few, are capable of building serious multidisciplinary awareness on the foundation of expertise in one home discipline. Taking this second and more modest possibility as the goal, and being content to leave the former possibility to chance so long as nothing is done to discourage it, education oriented to cultivating multidisciplinary competence must have several features.

 * Disciplines must be approached with appropriate respect and understanding. There can be no scientific despising of spirituality or knee-jerk religious rejection of publicly attested knowledge about the physical and social realities of our lives. This is much easier to achieve when it begins from the earliest days of education.

 * Disciplines should be taught not completely independently of one another (math separate from literature separate from social studies) but every effort should be made to draw connections between disciplines wherever possible.

 * Problem solving skills should be taught from the beginning of pre-school years.

 * Problems used in training students to be problem solvers should be designed to require input from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

 * Standards applied in the evaluation of multidisciplinary ventures should always be those of each native discipline. The advantages of working broadly across disciplines are vitiated when superficiality is tolerated.

 * As education proceeds, specialization need not be delayed any longer than it normally would be, but every disciplinary specialization should be outward looking, seeking connections to other disciplines and attempting to tackle large and awkwardly complex real-world problems, all of which are reminders that no one discipline can be effective any more working alone.

The implications of these requirements are far-reaching and affect everything from teacher training to school curriculum decisions to university departmental organizational structures.

5. Basic forms of multidisciplinary collaboration

Some forms of collaboration involve a thoroughgoing division of responsibility wherein participants may agree in advance to rest content with knowing little about what the others do. This sometimes happens with business partners, with one handling sales and marketing, another finances, another manufacturing, and a fourth personnel and office management. Anyone who has tried to run a business in this way knows only too well how things usually end up-in painful lawsuits and bankruptcy. When collaboration is oriented to solving problems, just as when it is aimed at manufacturing and selling widgets, the goals of efficiency and trust both demand that participants have a solid understanding of what everyone does.

In the business context, there are two broadly distinguishable ways to achieve successful collaboration on complex tasks. On the one hand, in any variation of an executive model, certain people (the executives) are expected to know enough about everything to delegate and assess performance. On the other hand, in any successful version of a partnership model, each partner comes to know in an increasingly detailed way the work of other, equal partners, while cultivating an area of specialization. Sometimes the two models (or classes of models, really) are combined to various degrees but there is always a group of people who have genuinely deep knowledge about issues beyond the domain of their immediate expertise. This knowledge must be gained as the collaboration continues, even when executives with enormous experience are introduced from outside the business; every business is unique and past experience only goes so far.

Both of these basic approaches have been implemented in intellectual collaborative problem solving with various degrees of success. I have been involved in collaborative projects that have adopted both models as well as one that vacillated between the two as needed, not without success (the NEH-sponsored Crosscultural Comparative Religious Ideas Project). The best-known implementation of the executive model is in “big science”, where one or a few prominent scientists control delegation and assessment procedures for a project so large that few people know its entire scope. As in business, there is inevitable inefficiency here, including the loss of good ideas in the shuffling of many administrative feet, but in very large projects there is sometimes no option. The best-known implementations of the partnership model are in democratic government and in United Nations resolutions such as the Declaration of Human Rights. On this model, the partners in focused efforts to find solutions to pressing problems are individuals (e.g. senators) or groups (e.g. delegations) who represent stakeholders in the problematic situation under discussion.

The process of broadening and deepening skills associated with these two basic kinds of collaborative structures works differently because the executive model demands less in the way of “understanding the other” on the part of those who are not executives and proportionally more of executives, whereas the partnership model requires much of all partners. These differences notwithstanding, the skill set required for successful collaboration consists of much that is foreign and difficult to master.

6. Implications

In his initial posting, Phil Clayton advances four theses: (1) science’s contribution is testable knowledge; (2) science’s methods for producing intersubjective agreement are generalizable; (3) science is no substitute for ethics and spirituality; and (4) we need a close partnership between scientific knowledge and spiritual wisdom. He goes on to ask, “What might follow concretely from these four guiding theses? And what kind of projects might be funded and carried out that reflect this new partnership between the best of science and the best of the spiritual traditions?”

To Phil’s several thoughtful answers I would add that we need to develop and refine models of multidisciplinary collaboration and that we must transform educational processes to maximize the chances of producing incipient problem solvers who already have multidisciplinary competence to a degree of sophistication that we now may find difficult to imagine. Furthermore, there is important research to be done in effective multidisciplinary collaboration by bringing business administration, social policy, and social justice perspectives to bear on the analysis of existing multidisciplinary problem-solving ventures. It will also prove vital to know more about what pedagogical strategies will prove most productive of problem solvers who can work with ease across disciplinary boundaries.

All of this is in the name of grasping the nettle of our problematic present, with its urgent need to solve problems that have already proved too unwieldy and complex for us and must not remain so. This is how I envision the future in our dawning new era, the era of necessarily collaborative problem solving.

Wesley J. Wildman is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Boston University, where he is Chair of the School of Theology’s Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics and Convenor of the Graduate School’s Ph.D. Concentration in Science, Philosophy, and Religion. He is author of Fidelity with Plausibility: Modest Christologies in Contemporary Theology (SUNY, 1998) and editor with W. Mark Richardson of Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialogue (Routledge, 1996). He is a participant in the ongoing series of conferences on “Divine Action” sponsored by the Vatican Observatory and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, and a contributor to several volumes associated with those conferences. He has also been involved in the “Crosscultural Comparative Religious Ideas Project” (sponsored by the National Institute for the Humanities) as its recorder and as a contributor to the three volumes produced by the Project. His research ranges from constructive work in philosophy and theology to analysis of biotechnology and religious experiences using multidisciplinary approaches. He also has strong pedagogical interests, especially with regard to multidisciplinary education.