Teamwork for what?

“Social-emotional skills’ such as teamwork, collaboration and communications are fashionable these days, writes Diana Senechal. She thinks students need to learn “a different way of being with others, a way of coming together for something interesting and beautiful.”

Teen socializing can be one of the most miserable experiences in life. If you don’t fit in, you have several options: to try to fit in, to take pride in not fitting in, to ignore the whole thing, to experience shame, or to build friendships over time. Many young people do a combination of all of these—and still go through school with a sense of rejection that stays with them for years, even decades.

If students get together to study a work of literature or music, they “come together as participants and witnesses, as people with ideas and questions,” Senechal writes. In her eighth-grade English class, she “came to know my classmates, and they me,” in discussing The Sword in the Stone, Henry IV, Antigone, The Glass Menagerie and  more.

Something similar happened in other classes, in chorus, and in our production of Romeo and Juliet. We were given room to think about something, to appreciate something, to work on something substantial.

Most group work  “degenerates into regular socializing with a task added on,” Senechal writes. “Too often, the group members shut out the student with the unusual idea (who, in many cases, would get much more done if allowed to work alone).”

Teamwork is not good in itself, she argues.

Just as much as students need to work together, they also need to think and act on their own. . . . Yes, there are times when you need to learn how to work together (on something specific)–for instance, how to act together in a scene, or how to conduct a physics experiment together. Still, the teamwork skills (if that’s the right term for them) will be determined by the work at hand. Teamwork as a generic skill does not exist (or if it does, it’s dreary).

. . . schools should offer more than the purely social; they should give students something worth learning and doing together, something beyond the peer group and its limited, limiting judgments.

Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.

I think people learn teamwork only when they’re on real teams coming together to dramatize Romeo and Juliet, sing in the chorus, march in the band, win the game, put out a newspaper and so on.

About Joanne


  1. Foobarista says:

    Team projects = barforama. When I was in school, team projects meant the “popular” kids on the team copied the assignment from the one or two diligent kids. The diligent kids would let them because the popular kids tended to be useless academically. If diligent guys and hot girls were both on the team, the hot girls would make use of their hotness in expected ways to get out of doing anything.

    Come to think of it, maybe it was good preparation for the real world!

    I do agree that effective team projects need to be in externally visible general work product, not just collective homework assignments.

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    The group assignments I had in high school didn’t in any way prepare me for the type of team assignments I encountered in the working world. As Foobarista mentions, the social dynamic is completely different. In a work or consulting environment if you don’t communicate or complete your aspect of the project you will more than likely suffer consequences – no promotion, no plumb assignments, fired. And most team members have special skills (at least in my fields) and it’s quite obvious when someone isn’t pulling their weight – for whatever reason.

    Remembering the school group work I did, teachers rarely attempted to tease out which group members were responsible for differing aspects of the projects. And we certainly weren’t assessed based upon our individual contributions.

  3. Some teachers seem to think that the mere experience of working together is the goal, not so much the academic learning that is supposedly at stake. The funny thing is, children have plenty of opportunities to work together outside of school, on projects that actually mean something to them.

  4. GEORGE LARSON says:

    I have experienced every of your criticisms of group work in high school, but it was also very helpful because of an accidental discovery.

    While researching for our group project (I did almost all the work) I encountered read and understood 2 books by Lillian Lieber
    Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics
    The Education of T. C. MITS
    These books opened my mind to Mathematics way beyond my high school level and allowed me to take graduate math credits as an undergraduate Biology major.

    Sometimes random chance is more valuable than teachers, group work, lessons plans and curricula

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    In the theme of “are you paranoid enough?” in these times, perhaps the goal is to reduce the kids’ interest in and capabilty of working alone.

    • Richard, I don’t see a conspiracy here, but I do suspect that some of the most gung-ho teamwork promoters don’t like to think much on their own.

      It isn’t just that the bright kids end up doing most of the work; it’s that the very nature of the work can be compromised by the teamwork emphasis. There are exceptions, of course, as in George Larson’s example above.

    • That would presume some sort of orchestration from above.

      Another possibility is that assignment of collective grades is an excellent way to diminish “the gap” in course grades, by putting the “diverse” students in groups with enough higher achievers to be able to pull their grades up.

      • This has been done for years. My DD, now 6 years out of college, had a HS freshman science class like that. Because of schedule problems, there were a few honors kids in a “regular” class and the honors kids were forced to have a spec ed kid (who cried if asked to do anything) in their group. The teacher admitted that he just didn’t want to deal with her.

  6. Crimson Wife says:

    Teamwork is important in the workplace, but the difference is that individual performance is still assessed. School group projects tend to have one collective grade, so what inevitably ends up happening is the smartest student in the group does most or all of the work because he/she doesn’t want his/her course grade hurt by a mediocre group project grade.