I’ve noticed recently that there has been a bigger emphasis on student group work in classrooms and schools. Obviously good teachers have made group work part of their pedagogical bag of tricks for years, but suddenly it seems that every where I turn some new educational leader or speaker is touting the need for students to work in group and collaborate. After all, project based learning (as opposed to just summative projects) requires collaboration. What I find often happens with educational initiatives, though, is that they good intentions go awry, and I think the current emphasis on group work is missing the point. As is often the case, group work is being pushed on us as the answer instead of thoughtful reflecting on when group work would be appropriate.
I say this as someone who has made group work a rather regular part of his classroom. My juniors have been working in groups the last 2 days and my seniors were working in groups today. The reason they were in groups though is because I wanted them to have thoughtful conversations about the activities at hand. In other words, it wasn’t grouping for the sake of grouping nor was it grouping simply so I could say there is collaboration. Instead, the depth of their answers could be enhanced by discussing, in the case of my seniors, the textual evidence in Beowulf, and, in the case of my juniors, their evaluation of various writings. In each case I weighed the option of asking them to do it individually against them working with others. This was not a quick decision.
I say this only because I think teachers and leaders need to be thoughtful about when and how they group students. I have heard many teachers and school leaders suggest grouping and when I ask why, their answer is usually something about “collaboration.” The real question here, though, is; are they really collaborating (ie grappling with a complex task/question that necessitates multiple perspectives) and does that collaboration provide a deeper, more thorough answer. I would contend that often times it does not; rather the group dynamic simply allows for quicker answers–not necessarily deeper or better answers.
The other caveat that I always keep in mind about grouping is that group work allows some students to coast. We’ve all seen groups in which one or two people dominate the group and the rest simply jot down their answers. That is not collaboration. I have actually over the years limited my group work for this reason and instituted more partner work as it’s harder to hide in a partnership.
Group work is great and can be meaningful. I just urge all educators to be thoughtful about it and not to institute group work simply for the sake of using groups.