Dolphin Teachers and Pod Classrooms: Why Two Fins are Better than One

94% of employers agree that collaboration is an imperative skill for 21st century job success for new graduates. Even though social bonding is in our human nature, we often forget this truth. I see it all the time — highly intelligent university and college students who minimize their social connection with others because they deem their peers as opponents rather than teammates.

This solitary “tiger” mindset often leads students to become overly competitive and lacking in important social skills. The National Education Association (NEA) deems collaboration as an essential skill for students to learn, because it is inherent in how work is accomplished and how our workforce functions. In my research, I have found the characteristics of one of the world’s most altruistic mammals, the dolphin, to be a powerful metaphor for collaborative teaching and learning approaches.

Now, if dolphins could enter the current work world, they would blow the competition out of the water (no-pun intended)!

Dolphins are famous for their highly social behaviour and collaborative way of life. Living in rich social communities called pods, dolphins use collaboration skills to hunt, play and survive in the deep depths of the ocean. For a second, imagine our education system as the ocean; how can our children survive the deep depths of group work, discussions, sharing, or playtime without the foundation of strong collaboration skills?

One of the first places children can deeply explore collaboration is in the classroom. Twenty-first century classrooms are moving toward greater collaboration, discussion and group tasks in order to promote cooperative learning. As long as the teacher remains a dolphin (and not a strict tiger or permissive jellyfish), the development of pod-like classrooms will have your children swimming towards success.

A wealth of shared knowledge. While hunting, dolphins do not fend for themselves; they consistently work together and share their intellect with one another to enhance the vitality of the pod. The vitality of a collaborative classroom is highly dependent on the interactions and shared knowledge between educators and students.

Children are no longer seen as “empty vessels” that can easily absorb the transferred knowledge from a lacklustre “sage on the stage.” Instead, children are invited to discuss new knowledge in light of their personal experiences, ideas and inquiries in the classroom. Of course, teachers still behold important content about a given topic or subject, but the collaborative approach allows students’ to take part in their own learning process.

Researchers suggest that when students see their experiences and knowledge as valued, they become empowered and motivated to listen and learn in new ways. For my kids, it is always a big confidence booster when they are able to educate and teach something to their own teacher and classmates!

Shared authority fosters autonomy. If you witness the dynamics of a dolphin pod, you can tell there is not one sole leader or distinct rule-maker. Take a look around a collaborative classroom, and you will see this same type of shared authority. Shared authority allows students to take more autonomy over their learning.

By participating in establishing classroom rules, setting goals and co-creating rubric guidelines, some shared authority can teach children the skills they will need to master in the near future (i.e. organization, time-management, communication, etc.).

Research indicates that if students understand they are capable decision makers, they are more likely to take advantage of autonomous and collective learning opportunities outside of the classroom.

Gently guide rather than direct. As soon as a baby orca is born, it’s mother gently nudges it to the surface while modelling swimming motions, which encourages independence right away. When students have more shared responsibility in the classroom, the teacher is seen as more of a guide toward knowledge rather than a director of knowledge.

Rather than directly stating factual information, educators (like mother orca’s) gentle nudge students toward opportunities where they can freely ask questions, provide insights and construct their own understanding. Mediated learning helps students become problem-solvers and high-order thinkers; students are encouraged to use creativity and critical-thinking skills to explore alternative solutions.

In “The Teacher as a Guide: Letting Students Navigate Their Own Learning”, Bonnie Bracy shares how turning her classroom into a hands-on laboratory, tapped into her students’ spirit of curiosity and exploration, and offered rich-learning experiences.

Small-group learning and discussion. Through signature whistles and unique sounds, dolphins are great underwater communicators. Collaborative classrooms often encourage communication through student discussions, group investigations and the development of shared understandings between peers.

Peer-to-peer interaction involves more than just working with others; it involves being respectful, reliable, social, motivating, challenging and competent.

In Tom Wujec’s TEDTalk “Build a Tower, Build a Team”, he discusses how group collaboration during an instructive “marshmallow tower” design competition can encourages teams to find innovative ways to collaborative and develop a shared understanding. Wujec’s study is a prime example of how diverse thinking brings multiple individual and cultural perspectives into collaboration, which not only generates more holistic results than individual efforts, but it also creates meaningful knowledge for a greater number of people.

The development of social bonds. The unique communication of dolphins allows them to develop strong social bonds with members of their pod, as well as other species. A community provides an environment within which rich social bonds can form – including those of friends, mentors and role models.

The only way to learn essential social skills is to try them out; a collaborative classroom should invite students to learn how to communicate, display teamwork skills and resolve conflict (through trial and error). Developing social bonds with peers and teachers will help students foster their own social identity and social responsibility.

The Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Program is a world-wide, hands-on school-based science program that allows students to collaborate with each other to impact global problems. GLOBE’s vision promotes and supports students, teachers and scientists to collaborate and generate solutions towards our worlds current and future issues.

These type of initiatives are teaching children to become involved contributors toward our social community; educators need to consider how to structure the social frame of collaborative activities to ensure positive peer-to-peer relationships and active citizenship can be nurtured. Here’s another bonus: social interaction and social bonding both increase dopamine levels in our brains – and what teacher wouldn’t want a classroom filled with happy, healthy and motivated kids?

As a metaphor, dolphins remind us of the value of collaboration and how it can extend beyond the work world. As parents and educators (coaches, role models, mentors…) we want the current generation of children to derive a great satisfaction from working with others while fostering greatness, inspiration and encouragement. Since children spend so much time in school, the collaborative classroom can offer rich learning opportunities that teach students the dolphin-like social skills they will need to be able to function successfully in a collaborative world.

Generation Entitled: How Kids Benefit from Gratitude

What are you grateful for today? This is the question I try to ask my three children before I tuck them into bed at night.

When I was younger, my mother established the same bedtime routine. Some nights I was more grateful than others, but the question always challenged me to think deeply about the positive aspects of my life. As the youngest of five children in a “non-privileged” immigrant family, everything I owned was a hand-me-down, so I learned to be grateful for non-material other things: a loving family, sincere friendships, inspiring siblings, helpful mentors and connection to my community. The powerful dialogue my mother and I generated about gratitude is among the keys to happiness and self-motivation. These discussions taught me how to count my blessings rather than add up my problems.

Continuing with this bedtime tradition, my hope is to inspire my kids’ attitude for gratitude. I hope to teach my children that gratitude is more than just saying “please” and “thank you”. Gratitude involves personal values, beliefs and the expression of appreciation toward others and the world we live in.

Unfortunately, many of today’s children do not grow up in an environment that fosters important lessons about gratitude.

According to a national survey on gratitude commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation, gratitude levels are declining. A whopping 60% of people are less likely to express gratitude than 100 years ago. Sadly, the national survey also indicates that 18 to 24 year-olds were less likely to express gratitude than any other age group, and when they did display signs of appreciation, it was usually for self-serving reasons.

The Cisco Connected World Technology Report found one-third of college students were more grateful for their mobile devices than their access to food, shelter, or safety. When youth find value for their iPhones, MacBook Pros and GPS systems more than the necessities for survival, we can understand how the term “Generation Entitled” came to be.

Why are children becoming more entitled and less grateful? Perhaps, it’s because children are growing up without really knowing what gratitude is. In the national survey, 8-10% of respondents indicated that no one has ever taught them the meaning of gratitude. The research shows that a child’s gratitude has its roots in a nurturing family environment. Given this, a good question for parents is: Is gratitude an attitude you are promoting for your child? 

Let’s think of the perfectionistic “tiger” parent for a moment. I think it would be difficult to foster gratitude in an over-scheduled, over-competitive, and “#1 at all costs” tiger environment. Tiger parenting tendencies of building a child’s “outside” (i.e. external resume) take priority to developing the child’s “inside” (internal character and values). Can you imagine the tiger parent telling their child to not focus on the results of a task (i.e. winning the piano recital) but to have gratitude for the opportunity to learn to play music?

As an adolescent psychiatrist, I’ve treated countless patients who have achieved their cherished external goals, such as acceptance into a dance academy, sports team, or college of “their choice”– but whose lives are utterly devoid of internal joy. They tell me they feel that they’re just going through the motions of life for a fixed result, not living the journey of life.

Throughout my new book, The Dolphin Way: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Self-Motivated Kids Without Turning Into a Tiger (Penguin Books), I show that instead of pushing towards “the best of everything,” let’s equip our children with the attributes they need to be self-motivated for health, happiness, and success.

Time magazine did a comprehensive review of the subject of gratefulness and concluded that the scientifically proven benefits are many, such as better sleep, less depression, less stress, better ability to cope with stress and an improved sense of social relationships and happiness.

Try these dolphin tools to teach your children the importance of being grateful: Create gratitude journals.

A gratitude journal is a wonderful and scientifically proven way to guide your child toward health, happiness, and internal motivation. I used to be skeptical of prescribing a gratitude journal to angry or anxious teenagers, because I thought they would reject the idea. However, my patients proved me wrong and over the years, I have seen firsthand how a gratitude journal has been a consistent highly effective tool to shift my patients’ thinking from negative to positive.

Role model and guide towards gratefulness. Remember the bedtime tradition I mentioned before? This is just one way to display and guide towards gratefulness. Discuss and share the things you are grateful for with your children. Write thank you cards, phone friends on their birthdays, and model other small acts of kindness in front of your children. Modelling gratitude will show your kids some of the ways gratitude can be expressed personally and towards others.

Serve others. A contribution to one’s community is a powerful tool for health, happiness, and self-motivation and I “prescribe” it to all my patients. There is a reason why it feels so good to give. Connecting, sharing, and giving all stimulate powerful reward centres in our neural circuits.

The wisdom of ancient sages and saints can is now verified by science. Your role as a parent has a major impact on your child’s understanding of the word gratitude. Take the time to reflect on your own attitude of gratitude and how you project your views onto your children.

If you think you are taking gratitude for granted, ask yourself the same question my mother asked me and I ask my children: “What are you grateful for today?”

I encourage you to write your responses in the comment box below this article. If the benefits are correct, you’ll be grateful you did!