Group work does not equal collaboration

[This is my last guest post for this stint. Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for having me, and thanks to Rachel and Michael for your excellent co-blogging.]

Often we hear that in today’s workplace, there’s increased need for collaboration, since projects are typically complex and require the combined efforts of many. Education policymakers then turn to schools and say, “OK, kids need to learn to collaborate, so there should be more group work in the classroom.” (This argument came up in a comment on my recent NYT piece.)

The problem here is one of translation. Collaboration and group work are not necessarily the same. You can have strong collaboration with minimal group work, and vice versa.

Suppose you have submitted a piece to a journal. You wrote the piece alone–but later receive comments and edits from the editor. Even if you never speak with the editor (except by email), these edits will inform your revision. Thus, by the time your piece reaches its final version, some collaboration has taken place.

Or say you are co-teaching a unit on the Renaissance. Your own contribution to the unit (which focuses on literature) requires much independent thought and planning–but when you hear what the other teachers are contributing, you adjust some of your presentation and questions, in order to play off of theirs. The independent planning is essential, as is the planning with your colleagues.

Or consider a musical ensemble. If rehearsal time is to be spent well, the members must learn their parts on their own. Then, when they come together, they can shape the music. Sometimes they will spend rehearsal time going over a new piece–but they still have to take it home and work on it, unless it presents no difficulties (in which case they will still need to practice the instrument on their own). In addition, to play well in an ensemble, you need to be able to play your instrument in the first place–and that requires years of practice, most of it solitary.

Also, many research projects are collaborative–yet the various pieces may not come together for a long time. Individual contributors may be working on their own pieces for years, only occasionally consulting with the others. (This could be good or bad; it depends on the nature of the project.)

Even a lecture is collaborative in that it requires joining of efforts. An attentive, inquisitive audience can make the difference between an outstanding lecture and one that falls flat. Likewise, the lecturer must respond, even subtly, to those in the room and to the room itself.

How is group work in the classroom different from what I have mentioned above? Too often, the group is expected to do most of the work together, in company (and surrounded by many other groups). There’s little room for independent work and thought. The scope of the project is typically limited; it may amount to nothing more than a Venn diagram. In fact, group work, when overused, can diminish collaboration by limiting what students do and learn.

Now, some people favor group work because it exposes students to social situations they will encounter later. Even this argument misses the boat. Good social interaction requires a degree of solitude. If you are constantly forced to negotiate with others–over ideas and problems–then you do not get a chance to bring anything of your own to the table. Imagine lawyers negotiating before they had researched their cases. The one with even a slight edge on the research would have the advantage. To negotiate over ideas (and information), you need to have them in the first place.

Sometimes group work in the classroom can result in something substantial. Often it does not–especially when the group work is there for group work’s sake. Yes, it’s important  for students to learn collaboration, but group work is not necessarily the way.

Addendum: In April I took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service’s flagship program The Forum, along with authors Eleanor Catton and Yiyun Li. At one point we discuss the overemphasis on group work in schools. The entire discussion is interesting–and can be heard online until July 28.


  1. Protestations to the contrary, the chief reasons for group work are 1) less grading for the teacher, and 2) it provides opportunity for weaker and/or lazier students to ride on the coattails of those who are smarter and/or more diligent.

    It isn’t about “social skills,” and It certainly isn’t about putting kids in a environment designed to help them achieve their potential.

    A pox on “group work” ~

    • I have frequently criticized group work because of the way it works out (especially when overused). Still there are many who insist that it’s essential preparation for the workplace, in that it builds collaboration. My point here was to contest that assertion.

  2. Ann in L.A. says:

    There is a way school can encourage collaborative work: lots of recess time with a playground designed for activity and creativity. I’m thinking like the scrapstore playpods. Kids learn to work together, deal with setbacks, deal with kids they might not like very much, etc. All sorts of “21st Century Skills” and “critical thinking” can be taught with minimal input from teachers.

  3. palisadesk says:

    I gather from the comments here, at KTM and elsewhere, that group work is a very common and overused practice, but am puzzled that I have seen so little of it (3 different districts, even more different schools). Perhaps it is more common in middle-class areas? Now of course some group activities do take place, but usually these are appropriate, such as when science equipment needs to be shared for experiments, when groups are required to produce skits or scenes from a play in drama class, an ensemble in music, a mural in visual arts. They do in fact have to collaborate and work together, but the nature of the activity is a group activity. I don’t see “group work” in reading, math etc. with very rare exceptions. School and district policy requires individual grades for students, not group grades, so those who are wont to ride the coattails of others do not get a higher grade as a result. They may even get an incomplete or a failing one.

    I think part of the reason I’ve seen less of this is because frequently our students are lacking in the social skills needed to work together cooperatively. Beginning in kindergarten this is a focus but is emphasized more in extra-curriculars, creative arts, sports and gym etc. than in basic academics. We do a lot of direct instruction in those.

    There have been plenty of times I would have liked to do some group projects in one topic or another, but instructional time is like gold and we simply did not have enough of it to spend in that manner. I found “project” work and group activities were not parsimonious, as a rule, and tended to eat up vast amounts of time.

    As a teacher, I loathe PD sessions which require us to do (stupid) activities like “jigsawing” and drawing pictures of “personal connections” instead of actually exploring any topic in depth. I call this the “share your ignorance” model of education. Grrr.

    • Perfect – although I usually use the term “pooling their ignorance” – often combined with “discovery learning”. Ditto on the time-sink, too. Even if group and discovery work- and I don’t think they often do- they eat up huge amounts of time that could be used for more effective instruction. I’ve seen little evidence, however, that the k-8 system has any awareness of the concept of efficiency, let alone any appreciation of it. Even worse are the out-of-class group projects that were just coming into fashion when my younger kids were in MS (and fortunately didn’t follow them into HS). Naturally, scheduling around each kid’s extracurriculars was a nightmare and the distances made parent drivers necessary. One teacher told me that she loved such projects until her kid was assigned his first, after which she refused to give any more.

    • Ann in L.A. says:

      Our private school relies on it for just about everything. They do group work almost daily in math, lit, and “peer editing” and “writers’ workshop” type things are partially group work.

  4. cranberry says:

    All the examples in your post involve *experts,* not people learning a new skill.

    Writing an essay is a new skill for children in the early grades, once they’ve figured out how to read and write basic sentences. What use is handing their first attempts to beginning readers to critique? Would you seek out a third grader to critique your journal article? After all, you aren’t learning how to write an opinion piece; unlike an elementary school student, you would speak up if the third grader gave you age-appropriate, but useless, advice, such as, “I liked that you mentioned tigers.”

    After a while, we concluded our local public school used group work to hide the differences in student ability and preparation. The teachers who assigned the best group projects remembered loathing group work as students, and thus took pains to institute measures to ensure each student contributed to the final project. Requiring each group participant to grade the other group members for 1) work ethic, 2) attitude, and 3) collaboration, helped a great deal. That would, however, require teachers to spend more time in grading rather than less, and also required the courage to give group members different grades on the same project—and deal with parent complaints.

    • Cranberry, I was distinguishing here between group work and collaboration, not suggesting that elementary school students should be expected to collaborate like adults. My point was: IF it is true, as I believe it is, that many fields involve collaboration, one must still question the belief that group work prepares students for such collaboration.

      If it does, so does solitary work, and so does direct instruction–because in order to collaborate well, one must know what one is doing, and one must have thought it through.

      I agree that well-planned group work, in the right place and time, can help students, and that it does take a lot of work (as does direct instruction, for that matter).

      I mainly object to the assertion–which you clearly are not making–that teachers should use group work as much as possible and that they should “get out of the way” of the students. There’s great value in listening to the teacher, taking part in sustained discussion, and puzzling things through on one’s own. Constant group work doesn’t allow for much of that.

      • cranberry says:

        Yes, but doesn’t it all trace back to the Romantic view of the child? My children had to go through Writers’ Workshop; we parents were subjected to lectures about the need for collaboration in the modern workplace. Elementary school students were “peer editing” each other’s work. Even strong students would have benefited from a rationally organized system of direct instruction on the points of grammar, how to write an essay, and the importance of spelling. In time, peers may be able to be good editors of each others’ work, but elementary school is not the proper time.

        I think group work can work well—in extracurriculars. It works when children have a choice as to which group to join, and when they’re old enough to be able to contribute . I think high school is a good time to practice collaboration. It’s also the time teens choose to divide themselves into interest groups. The same kids who complain about the pointless “collaboration” in class will speak proudly about their efforts on the school paper, or sports team. At that age, many school clubs do have adult advisors who are “guides on the side.”

        To think of it in terms of sports, young children don’t get the idea of playing their position. They swarm around the soccer ball. Until they’re able to reliably play mid-field, they shouldn’t be asked to do group work.

  5. One frequently hears the argument that “kids need to learn to collaborate because our 21st-century high-tech computerized advanced economy will require collaboration skills.” This argument is a-historical in that the importance of collaboration in an economy is hardly new. Do these people think the Empire State Building and the Hoover Dam were built without collaboration? The Willow Run aircraft plant? The play of Gilbert & Sullivan?

  6. “If you are constantly forced to negotiate with others–over ideas and problems–then you do not get a chance to bring anything of your own to the table.”

    Yes, this. And the kids who are less assertive or more shy get “run over” by the pushier kids in the group. (I remember one situation, where it was a group project where we all got the same grade, and one or two of the kids in my group looked at me and said, “You care about grades so you do the work.”) Or some people’s ideas always get shot down because they’re the “dumb kid” or the “uncool kid” or whatever. (I suppose some workplaces also work that way, unfortunately.)

    Also, for the conflict-averse, the constant negotiating is exhausting. In a lot of groupwork instances I just took on a lot of the work because I’d rather WORK than argue with my groupmates over who did what.

  7. Re collaboration in the workplace: tasks that involve thousands of people must be divided into tasks that involve smaller groups, and eventually tasks to be done by single individuals. One can’t take the 305,000 people comprising the General Electric Company and say, “Hey, you guys figure out who is going to build the locomotives and where is the best place to make water heaters and also what innovations in healthcare are worth pursuing.” Ultimately, it comes down to Sandra writing the code for the dishwasher controller and Michael figuring out the best source for the alloys in the new jet engine blades.

    But some complexities…

    1) Many tasks will involve decisions that cut across the decision scope of individuals. Deciding on the best inventory policy for a manufactured item, for example, should involve the sales organization, the manufacturing organization, physical distribution, and finance, to name a few.

    2) Self-organizing teams are sometimes feasible and desirable, as in a 5-person manufacturing cell where individuals decide “who does what” on a dynamic basis, or a programming group operating the same way.

    3) Coalition-building to internally sell new ideas and get them done is a form of collaborative work which is often very important.

    Sort of rambling here… maybe more later.

  8. YES, YES, YES!!!!!

    To force children into group work means:
    – a few, stronger students do most of the work, managing, and learning
    – a few lazy students get a free ride
    – Introverts HATE these activities – it’s hard for them to even think with the endless talking that goes on
    – Extroverts end up chattering, gossiping, and getting WILDLY off-topic – do not learn the deeper concepts

    Collaborative work has to involve some aspects of individual effort and thinking. Reflection needs to be a major part of this, as does individual recording of the process.

    MOST “collaborative” work is a waste of time.

    • Even extroverts often hate group work; as my kids did. They all had serious extracurriculars and preferred to do their own work rather than take several times as long to work in groups – and they resented the free riders. One teacher even admitted that he didn’t want to deal with several kids who refused to work, and he was so lazy that his MS class was essentially all group, with everyone receiving the same grade.

  9. Group work is appropriate for a lab type course, like in biology/chemistry, but in many other cases this is how it usually works out:

    In a group of six persons, the distribution of work is:

    1 or 2 persons do most of the work, 2 of them contribute some stuff, and the rest do nothing, but all six get the same grade. Pathetic.

  10. Obi-Wandreas says:

    If you want to see the results of years of elementary teachers pushed into doing little but group work, look at the 7th grade class I had this year.

    They did not understand that they should pay attention to the lecture. They were constantly taken aback that I expected them to not be carrying on their own conversations.

    They did not understand that if they sat back and allowed others to do the work that those others would pass while they failed.

    As far as knowledge? At the beginning of the year, not one of them knew the Order of Operations (they either didn’t know it at all, or thought it was 6 steps). Not one of them could solve even a single-step equation using inverse operations. Their ignorance was legion.

    It wouldn’t have bothered me if they were dumb or incapable. The reality is that they were bright and talented students suffering from academic child abuse.

    Thank you for this post. Conflating group work and collaboration is one of my major pet peeves.

    • Well, most of these kids in my day (graduated in 1981) would have been flunked or held back. If you didn’t know Order of Operations in Math (My Dear Aunt Sally) or in computing Multiply, Divide, Modulus, Add, Subtract, it was a forgone conclusion you’d flunk out of algebra I (in my day, you needed two units of math to graduate from high school, but neither had to be algebra I or higher mathematics).

      These students will get a wake up call when they get to high school (or college, when they’ll need a boatload of remediation just to be able to select a major).