Fowl Play: What School Leaders Can Learn From Chickens


The smartest person in the room is the room. –
David Weinberger

If schools are to become centers of innovation and creative thought, collaboration is essential.  We know businesses value highly innovative and collaborative individuals, but our society does not naturally cultivate these highly desired traits.

Competition is ingrained in us at a young age. We compete athletically and academically, culminating in a race for class rank, scholarships, and admittance into elite colleges and universities. It is ironic that after a lifetime of competition we ask these same students to embrace collaboration and collective well-being upon entering the workforce.

The long-term effects of pitting individuals against each other are evident in mother nature. David Muir, a researcher at the University of Purdue, experimented with chickens to learn about group dynamics and productivity. Muir cultivated two distinct groups of poultry over six generations. The first was a control group comprised of average egg producers. The second included what Muir termed “super chickens”- top tier producers. The results were surprising. The average producers significantly outperformed the super-chickens. The reason: only three super-chickens were still alive- they pecked each other to death.

Muir’s work contains a multitude of lessons for school leaders. We have to foster a collaborative culture by modeling collaboration. To do this, we must follow our soul and not our ego. Our work is not about glorification or notoriety; it’s about creating the best learning environments for students and staff.

School leaders should empower others and help them maximize their potential. We have all met someone who achieved success by limiting others, and unfortunately, most of us have been that person at one time or another, metaphorically pecking at others. A lifetime of competition has taught us that it is okay to establish ourselves as the best in a particular field. However, if we are to equip our students with the essential skills to thrive in a world of automation, we must teach them the value of cooperation.

I don’t believe competition is inherently dangerous. It allows us to understand what is possible. Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile helped others understand what the human body and mind can accomplish. It enabled others to remove their mental barriers and maximize their potential.

Educators must model and facilitate cooperative learning experiences. Activities that promote critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication will enable students to experience success beyond high school. The smartest person in the room is the room, and achievement and potential aren’t static. A healthy school culture emphasizes personal growth and self-actualization through collaboration.  We all win by working together.



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