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.