[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.