Putting group work in its place

My book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be released by Rowman & Littlefield in November and is already available for pre-ordering. In the book, I discuss group work, the folly of the “big idea,” pitfalls of “mass personalization,” and more, with references to literature, philosophy, and mathematics.

It is unclear what the future of group work holds, but I hope that it will be given its proper place–that it will be used when it actually serves the lesson and not when it doesn’t.

The Common Core State Standards seem ambivalent over the matter. The English language arts standards state, for instance, that third-grade students will “engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 3 topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.” The emphasis here could be either on clarity of expression or on the range of collaborative discussions.

Group work has its place, but its place has been greatly exaggerated by proponents of various “workshop models,” Balanced Literacy, “21st century skills,” and so forth. People often forget that its quality depends on the contributions of its members. To contribute something substantial to a group, you have to do a great deal of work alone.

Working alone is not merely individualistic or competitive. It allows one to sift through thoughts, absorb information, commit information or literature to memory, think about it in different ways, try out ideas, slow down, speed up, and return to something one has learned or read before. For many, it is the happiest and most fruitful part of learning, along with the instruction itself.

When group work becomes a mainstay of instruction, it can limit the lesson and even the subject matter. The most common complaint about group work is that some students do much more work than others. But there are many more problems.

First, because students lack perspective on the subject, they are likely to disregard opinions that don’t make immediate sense to them. They may focus on those points of view that help them finish the task quickly. If someone in the group sees a problem with the entire premise, that person will likely be ignored.

Second (and related), because group work tends to focus on a task, the group members may not take time with questions that require time. They may take the shortest route to the goal, which for some topics and subjects is not the best.

Third, because group work can easily devolve into chaos, it is often highly structured, with specific roles assigned to the members. One member may be a time-keeper, another a note-taker. This, ironically, can lead to a miniature society of leaders and laborers.

Fourth, the very noise and bustle of group work can interfere with good thinking. It can be hard to concentrate in a room full of talk.

Fifth, in a small group, the social relationships become paramount. If the members are friends, they may enjoy what they are doing together. If they don’t get along, they may stare at their desks most of the time. Students need some respite from social interaction. Schools should give them room to learn without social activity at every turn. If given respite, they will ultimately have more to bring to groups, as they will have had a chance to form their own thoughts.

Sixth, people want to fit into a group, even if they don’t want to want to fit in. They may try to maintain the group’s approval; they may hesitate to say things that challenge the group. The group may appear to be in agreement when in fact it is not. How often have I heard a group leader tell the class, “We think…”? In many of those cases, it is likely that they didn’t all think whatever it was the leader said they thought.

Seventh, group work takes an awful lot of time, and much of that time could (and should) be spent on extended instruction, question-and-answer dialogue, and whole-class discussion. Having group work in every lesson means that other things won’t happen. This affects how the subjects are taught.

Now, if all of these drawbacks of group work are kept in mind, one can find a place for it. Often a group project may come out of a series of lessons on a historical topic, for instance. Once the students have enough information about the topic and have done some work on their own, they are prepared to work together on something.

Also, group work need not be student-led or exclude the teacher. Singing in a chorus is essentially group work, but the chorus needs the conductor. Acting in a play is also group work, and it takes several forms; the director leads the rehearsals, but cast members must also rehearse on their own, alone and with scene partners. Group work need not always take the form of four kids filling out a Venn diagram (a form it frequently takes when teachers are compelled to include it in every lesson).

What Marianne Moore wrote about poetry, one can say about group work as well (keeping in mind that Moore’s words are not a direct statement but form part of a tricky and wonderful poem):

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
     all this fiddle.
   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
      discovers in
   it after all, a place for the genuine.


  1. Group work in elementary school often devolved into “smartest person does all the work.”

    However, in high school STEM classes, I *DID* have some instructive group work assignments. They were usually:
    1. Highly structured groups– the teacher assigned each person a specific role (tech writer, researcher, team leader, programmer, etc. etc.)

    2. Projects that were literally too big for one person to accomplish alone.

    3. Groups drawn exclusively from the magnet program, so there while there was a range of skill sets and abilities, it was not a case of ‘only one person capable of the work.’

    Even then, some group projects resulted in successful, educational collaboration, and some (especially when the team leader was incompetent or a micro-manager) were utter disasters. Which I suppose was good preparation for the workplace! 😉

    In my own teaching, I’ve noticed that group work can occasionally work to shake up the routine , but shouldn’t be a regular occurrence. When used independently of an organized, humongous project, group work seems to be mostly an impediment to learning– the kids who know the material do all the work, and the kids who don’t know the material learn how to sit and watch someone else work.

  2. Deirdre,

    The group work you describe also required and involved substantial amounts of independent work, correct? That is, if one person was a researcher and another a programmer, they likely did that research and programming on their own and then brought their work to the group.

    One of the problems with group work as currently implemented is that students are often expected to do the nuts-and-bolts work together, in class. That limits what can be done. Of course it’s appropriate for certain kinds of work, such as science lab, but not for others.

  3. Yes, we were expected to work independently and then ‘put it all together.’ This was both an attempt to mimic ‘real world’ collaboration and a way for teachers to actually grade individuals for their work as well as the group as a whole. (We had to work together on the presentation, for example…)

    Because it was a magnet situation and the teachers all had the same students, they also made sure that, on the next project, roles as well as groups were switched around. That way no one got to do their favorite task over and over. Group time occurred during class but we were also expected to meet and work outside of class, both independently and as a group. And the teachers actually kept pretty close tabs to make sure groups were functioning smoothly and to intervene when there was a problem.

    Basically, good group work requires a VERY careful implementation. “Get in groups of three and brainstorm a solution” is not enough.

  4. Yes, and there also has to be a reason for working in a group (besides working in a group). As you point out, the magnitude of the project may require it in some cases.

  5. Group work requiring out-of-school meetings puts an unreasonable burden on both kids and parents, unless it is a safe, urban location where kids can walk to each other’s houses. In suburban situations, where 4-5 ES feed into one MS and one HS, kids have to be driven and scheduling is a nightmare, since all kids have extracurriculars.

  6. Group work is an educational tool, like any other. Just because you have a hammer, doesn’t mean everything’s a nail. A teacher’s job involves figuring out the best teaching method for the material and students at hand. Group work requires that the teacher also teach working in a group, not just assume that kids know how it goes.

    The workshop model does not automatically imply group work. In fact, it usually means whole-class instruction (which you seem to favor) or small-group instruction followed by individual work and then a regathering and summing up with the larger group afterward. During the individual time teachers circulate and often conference with students quietly. Adult workshops do usually involve group work, which I frequently find irritating.

    To be honest, I found group work to be abused mostly in higher education. I don’t see a lot of teachers using group work above other types of instruction at the elementary level, but I’m sure that varies between districts. In college I remember being subjected to all kinds of ridiculous group work assignments for which most of us were unprepared. I was told we were doing group work to get us ready for the real world. In the real world none of my group work was ever anything like what I did in college.

  7. The real world is what we make it. Yes, I hear that employers look for people who know how to “collaborate,” but “collaboration” does not necessarily involve sitting face to face and doing “hands-on” work every day.

    The “workshop model” was quite specific when first mandated citywide in New York City. I think it may have loosened a bit since then. It consisted of a mini-lesson, followed by group or independent work, followed by a final “share.” Desks were to be arranged in groups. I got away with a “horseshoe,” which I like for many reasons, but that’s because I was teaching ESL and had fairly small classes.

    Teachers know that you can’t apply a single model to every lesson–but still, the “workshop” (with group work) was the reigning format. If you were being observed, you were supposed to follow it. This is still the case in many schools.

    Group work for group work’s sake is often silly at best. Yes, people need to learn to work together, but they also need sound preparation and a reasonable premise for doing so.

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The number one problem with group work is this: there’s never anyone in charge.

    In the business world (I absolutely hate the phrase “the real world” because it implies that somehow certain experiences aren’t real) a “group project” consists of someone whose ass is on the line, and the people helping him.

    Example: Att Mashley, Barkian Bry, Sherry Hultz, Rebra Dobb, and… let’s call him Like Mopez are all working on a set of summary judgment briefs. Att Mashley is in charge of the project, but Barkian, Sherry, and Like are each working on an individual brief. Att Mashley is reviewing each of the brief sections as it gets done, coordinating and making edits/suggestions. Rebra Dobb is assembling all the exhibits, copying them, getting all the tabs and such ready for the filing tomorrow. They work long into the night, each working on their own part, with Att Mashley carefully supervising the entire operation.

    A model like this can’t work in school straight-up because students don’t get the practice at each of the jobs, and whatever else you think it’s for, school is a place for PRACTICING things. If you just assign a group project and divy the tasks up like in the business world, whoever gets Att Mashley’s job isn’t going to actually write anything — he’s only going to edit. Whoever has Rebra’s job isn’t going to write anything, either. She’s doing SUPER VITAL but essentially administrative tasks. Useful, yes. But it misses the point of practice.

    What you have to do with group work, if you want it to be effective, is create your groups, and then give them just as many assignments as there are members of the groups. For each assignment, put a different person in charge. Let’s say you have four students in each group. That’s four assignments. Each student’s grade would be made up of something like 40% the assignment on which they were in charge, and 20% for each of the other three. Create something like a “task list” for each project that shows the discrete tasks, and allow the person in charge to assign the various tasks to his or her “subordinates”. (In higher level classes, or classes where they’ve experience with this model, the students can decide the tasks on their own.)

    What’s more, you make the student in charge (and only the student in charge) responsible for deciding some non-trivial portion of the subordinate grades for each assignment.

    I could see this working for history (one group project each for, say, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Napolean, and WW2) or English (a group project on every other book you read during the year maybe).

    That’s the only model for graded group work I could EVER see assigning. Anything else is going to result in “Att Mashley” writing everything and everyone else learning nothing except how to sponge off “Att Mashley’s” work ethic and worry about his GPA.

  9. georgelarson says:

    In the past before it was taught in schools, how did everyine learn how to do group work?

    In families?
    In team athletics?
    In musical ensembles?
    In local theater groups?
    Playing games in groups?

    Do we really need to teach group work in schools?

    Have employers blessed what passes for teaching group work in schools?

    I think what employers really want is coorperative employees who do not think of themselves first. This is an attitude and may not be encouraged by the group work or the individual work process going on in schools.

  10. Kids used to spend lots of time in free play, with the kids organizing their games and learning how to get along and settle their own disputes. Now, too much of kids’ lives is being micromanaged by adults; parents, teachers, coaches etc. They also did chores, with older kids often supervising; dividing up the sub-tasks and making sure things were done right and on time.


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