The Power of Collaboration: Ethical Dilemmas as a Mechanism for Problem-Solving | Harbord & Khan | 5 Min Read

A mechanism is an ultimate example of collaboration “a system of parts working together in a machine; a piece of machinery” (Oxford Languages). Power within the system may be distributed unevenly, as evidenced by the term ‘the big wheel’. The nuts and bolts of it are that mechanisms have traditionally been purposefully constructed, to make our lives easier and more efficient, to solve problems. Hand in hand with purpose is another human motivating driver, our desire for entertainment and the fantastical.

Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer, and inventor born in the U.S. in 1883 and is best remembered for “Rube Goldberg Machines©” where a simple task is performed by a complex machine. Nowadays his name is synonymous with Rube Goldberg Machines©, which are made up of mechanisms and require novel thinking to solve a problem. This is an engrossing collaborative STEAM project for students of all ages. (If you are old enough to remember the game Mousetrap©, that was a Rube Goldberg Machine©. More recently they have been featured in music videos and advertisements for cars.) Making a Rube Goldberg Machine© takes collaboration as students need to work together to experiment with timing, weight, speed and mechanisms, and motion. 

Rube Goldberg’s Machine© for taking a selfie starts with a toe moving a string, which raises a hook releasing a string. Each step of the process triggers the next and is integral to the whole. This is an excellent analogy for students to understand the power of collaboration as an essential life skill, especially those students who prefer to work on their own. Creating a Rube Goldberg Machine© requires extensive experimenting and testing. We can consider some of the simple mechanisms you might find in a Rube Goldberg Machine© such as wheels and axles and think of these as strategies to support problem-solving skills. 

A wheel and axle reduce friction when moving something. In the same way, being able to hear others’ opinions and being open-minded while collaborating, ‘greases the wheels’ and makes the work process much smoother. A wedge is another type of mechanism; it can separate objects like a force applied to its broad surface area is amplified. We can compare this to the way in which working on a project collaboratively to find solutions, can bring the power of collective and diverse thinking to bear on a single issue. 

Ethical dilemmas can also be a mechanism for problem-solving as they present students with conflicting scenarios to investigate and explore solutions. The emotional and sometimes confronting issues inherent in ethical dilemmas (input) can engage students and generate momentum in pursuing sustained and in-depth inquiry as they work their way through (output) the dilemma. 

An Ethical Dilemma for Collaboration

Input or issue: The COP26 summit held in Glasgow (31st October – 12th November 2021) aimed to support collaboration and quicken the progress in meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Many countries have not been meeting their targets, prioritizing their own economic needs above taking collective action on Climate Change.

Alok Sharma, COP26 President commented, “So there has been progress, but not enough. That is why we especially need the biggest emitters, the G20 nations, to come forward with stronger commitments to 2030 if we are to keep 1.5℃ in reach over this critical decade.”

Ethical Dilemma: Compromising when collaborating on a common goal versus working towards one’s own vision or needs (partial success vs. all or nothing scenarios).  

Output or problem-solving: Students can research the topic and decide if there is a workable solution to this dilemma. The Thinking Generatorⓒ below is a valuable tool to support their inquiry of this dilemma.

Thinking Generatorⓒ 

Students can use the Thinking Generatorⓒ  as a mechanism to support critical and creative thinking and problem-solving and to clarify their opinions. The first step is to question if they are mindful of their task and paying attention. Although the Thinking Generatorⓒ includes the concepts of What I Know, What I Learnt, Now What? it also encourages students and teachers to think about their own assumptions and biases, whether these ideas are their own or influenced by others, and how they know they are right. 

Topic: Compromising when collaborating on a common goal versus working towards one’s own vision or needs.  

So let’s break this down using our Thinking Generatorⓒ 

Students can use the Thinking Generatorⓒ  in different ways and in all subjects. We have developed another version that illustrates how elements can be extracted and used independently. In keeping with our ethical dilemma about Climate Change, we are focusing on a topic related to sustainability. 

Fairness Win-Win: Redeveloping our Spaces, Building our Communities

Environmental Design Unit developed for DATTA Vic (2021)

As we wrap up our article, there was a side event at COP26 titled ‘OCHA, UNDRR WMO: Getting ahead of climatic disasters: Know, Predict, Warn, Act’.  Knowing and understanding others hinges on knowing and understanding ourselves. Ethical dilemmas, in conjunction with the Thinking Generatorⓒ, offer students and teachers opportunities for meaningful reflection and purposeful action while problem-solving. 

The Thinking Generatorin action!

Here is some feedback from international educators:

“I enjoyed using the Thinking Generatorⓒ chart because it helped me look at the problem from many different aspects which eliminates unorganized thoughts. I also like it because it helps me visually see the problem. Doing this activity helped me learn what the issues are from both a student and admin point of view. I guess as a teacher, I never really thought about these issues from a different perspective. Now that I have a chance to view them, I can work towards solving at least the student problem.”    

Amani Alshoshan 

“Using the Thinking Generatorⓒ  as a form of reflective practice taught me how to view my problems in ways I have never viewed them before. The questions seemed easy but once I tried to answer them, I struggled. This gave me a chance to realize how much more I should think about my problems, and more importantly, how I should be thinking of solving them. The questions are a great tool for me to use in future issues, as they create a structure for my thoughts.” 

Fajer Al Sabah 

“Working through the Thinking Generatorⓒ gave me time to reflect on problems as well as brainstorm ideas of how to approach and nullify them. I feel like starting conversations around them would be a wonderful way to ignite some passion for the topics. It’s important not to brush these problems aside, but to think about them and reflect on what actions to take in the future. The Thinking Generatorⓒ helps me not be rash and act on the problem impulsively.” 

Madeline Raaflaub 

Harbord and Khan

Meredith Harbord EdD and Sara Riaz Khan are global educators who use ethical dilemmas to enrich and transform curriculum. Their student centric approach is driven by an ethical model and innovative tools that support critical thinking and creativity. Meredith and Sara’s collaboration as Design teachers at ABA Oman International School in Muscat, focused on sustainability, ethical design and global mindedness and inspired them to establish Harbord & Khan Educational Consultants. They develop units of work based on real world issues to engage and challenge students for diverse curriculums (IB, PBL, Common Core and Australian) and are available for professional development and to create programs to meet the specific needs of your school. Meredith and Sara have authored two teacher curriculum books ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 1, 2 & 3’ and ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 4 & 5’ (2020). Website:

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