Intelligent groups

Collaboration” and “working effectively in groups” are supposed to be 21st century skills that students will need in the workplace, notes Dan Willingham on The Answer Sheet. But teachers don’t know how to teach collaboration: Just putting students in groups doesn’t make them effective.

However, new research provides insight on what good group members do, Willingham writes.

Just as there is a general intelligence or “g factor” in individuals that predicts the likelihood the individual will solve a problem, there is a collective intelligence or “c factor” that predicts group task solution across a broad variety of tasks.

Second, you might expect that the “c factor” would simply be a function of the average intelligence of group members. It wasn’t. The intelligence of individuals mattered, but more important was the social intelligence of group members.

Social intelligence was measured by asking participants to judge what another person is feeling from a photograph of the eyes only. Women tested higher on social sensitivity and groups with more women showed a higher group intelligence.

Letting everyone take a turn in the conversation also contributed to group intelligence.

I spent many years on the San Jose Mercury News editorial board trying to reach consensus on the issues of the day.  I don’t think social sensitivity was my strong suit.

About Joanne


  1. “‘Collaboration’ and ‘working in groups'” are supposed to be 21st century skills”

    So the people who designed and built the Empire State Building and the Hoover Dam didn’t work in groups? How about the people who built and flew the B-17 and B-29 bombers? No collaboration there?

    A common critique of American society by 1950s and early 1960s intellectuals was that there was *too much* emphasis on collaboration and too little on individualism.

    “Educators” who are attempting to sell the “everything has changed” meme demonstrate again and again their lack of familiarity with history and especially their lack of understanding with the world of work, both present and past.

  2. My son is autistic (diagnosed in his mid-30s) and he’d flunk that test. He cooperates and collaborates just fine, as long as people don’t ask him to do something he can’t — that is, figure out veiled and indirect meanings conveyed through subtle body language. Tell him explicitly what you need; don’t expect him to guess. He won’t mind. In the high-tech industry, where people like him are quite common and often valued for the things they can do that non-autistics can’t, most people know how to work with them. But in a short test with a group of strangers, autistics would be at a huge disadvantage. Possibly in violation of anti-discriminatory legislation, besides.

  3. In my kids’ experience, k-12 groupwork usually is designed to “include” mainstreamed spec ed kids who are unable/unwilling to make any meaningful contribution. Picture an teacher-mandated 8th-grade science group that included 2 honors students, one regular student and one spec ed student who cried whenever asked to do anything. Guess who did all the work? The other two received the same “A” grade, of course. It’s all designed to mask differences in ability, work ethic and actual achievement. Successful groups are composed of people who all have sufficient knowledge/skills/motivation to make meaningful contributions.

  4. Hmm. In other words, the most successful groups are composed of people who work well with others. Simply shocking. Joanne, I’m thinking you’re sleeping with this Willingham dude.

  5. Mike Curtis says:

    Leaders, not groups, make things happen.

    I concur with Momof4’s conclusion…in public education, group work devolves to the communistic level of “each according to his needs” sucking life from “each according to his ability.”

  6. According to Willingham’s article, “Social intelligence was measured by a relatively simple task in which one must judge what another person is feeling from a photograph of the eyes only.”

    If we could teach this kind of social intelligence, we’d have a cure for autism.

    Until we do, what do we do with mainstreamed autistic children in classrooms that insist on students working in groups?

  7. Hmmm…. I wonder… how “Twenty-first century” is a group that does all its work in person, in a situation that uses eye contact?

    If we really want to teach 21 century group work, shouldn’t it involve email, twitter and cloud computing?

    Why does the group need to meet, or be in the same room?

    Oh. Wait. I know this one. Because it’s wrong to favor “Kids who value knowledge and skills” over “Kids the teacher likes to hang out with,” 😛

    It seems unlikely that the abilities of the group don’t matter as much as social skills.

    Otherwise, a group of very friendly waitresses would be more successful at producing a new software package than those nerds at Microsoft are……

  8. People should be able to work well with others, but they HAVE to be able to think for themselves. Momof4 is right… Pushing group work so hard, especially at such a young age, is just another part of the fraud that is the K-12 education system in the United States. :/


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