Lone Geniuses or We Intentionality?

By Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman


Culturally, the celebration of the lone genius myth prevails. The lone genius is the person who works as a single individual to achieve greatness. It sort of makes sense that traditional educational organizations often focus on individual learning—on an “I” intentionality—learning as a solo pursuit. The problem: The lone genius myth, is just that, a myth. Ask yourself:

When was the last time I truly did anything meaningful by myself, without the help of anyone else?

I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time (if there ever was a time) when I created meaning in this world all by myself. Even seemingly solo activities, like writing this blog post, take on a “we” intentionality. For example, in writing this post, I am aware that I am influenced by: research other people have conducted that I’ve consumed, research we’ve conducted as part of the Unicorn Institute project, people in my social surroundings, people in my professional surroundings, and the behaviors of my former students. There are a lot of people who influence my thoughts and my actions. And I’m grateful, because I’m better for it. I’m well-rounded when I’m apart of a shared intentionality.

We’re all a part of a shared intentionality—a “we” intentionality. As professionals, we know we must collaborate effectively to accomplish greatness. We work on projects, together. We succeed or fail, together. We work in teams. We work in groups. We collaborate. We do all of this, together. However, we don’t see a lot of education focus on “we.” Instead, we see a lot of education focus on “I.”

There are many reasons education focuses on teaching the solo student. The reasons go beyond the ever present lone genius myth. For example, it seems a lot tidier to create assignments for a single student and grade that student based on their individual performance than it is to create and grade project-based, team learning opportunities. And standardized tests (at least in the US) focus on testing individuals, not teams. And students get in trouble when they work to solve problems together, because it’s considered cheating. Students learn how to be the best individual they can be but rarely learn how to be the best teammate.

We know that educational systems tend to focus on individual learning, not collaborative learning. And, yet, we wonder why recent graduates enter the professional world not knowing how to have a “we” intentionality. As a society, we have chosen an educational system that hasn’t helped students learn how to be a part of “we.” We haven’t helped them to learn and experience the value in “we.” In essence, as a society, we’ve focused on creating lone geniuses and this has failed both recent graduates and hiring companies.

There is a major skills gap between what students learn and what industry needs. A large majority of this skills gap comes from soft skills—skills that can only really be learnt when working collaboratively with other people. Skills like:

  • Presenting: Sharing thoughts and design concepts with peers and stakeholders;
  • Facilitating: Extracting design requirements and project direction from peers and stakeholders, while promoting a shared understanding;
  • Critiquing: Receiving, giving, and training peers and stakeholders on constructive feedback;
  • Storytelling: Communicating and affirming how decisions were made, how principles were arrived at, and how the design will improve the lives of the users to peers and stakeholders;
  • Sketching: Communicating emerging design ideas quickly and exploring problem space with peers and stakeholders;
  • Professionalism: Behaving responsibly and appropriately with peers and stakeholders; and,
  • Leadership: Providing vision, direction, and passion to peers and stakeholders.

To fully explore and learn these soft skills, we must allow students to collaborate on projects. The people who students collaborate with need to extend beyond other classmates. Collaborating with peers and stakeholders affords students real-world experience in developing necessary soft skills while in a safe learning environment.

My vote: It’s time for learning opportunities within educational organizations to support collaboration. But without all of us working together to make this a reality, we’ll continue to have a gap in what students learn and what industry needs. It comes down to one question:

Will we choose lone geniuses or a “we” intentionality?


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