Many people, both children and adults, dread group work. Others are excited about getting to do it. As an educator, group work was sometimes successful and sometimes not. As a participant my experiences are poor at best and abysmal on average. Long ago, I thought that had to do with something like introversion or extroversion. After all, there’s a certain logic behind the idea that a person who finds a crowd mentally draining is not likely to enjoy working with a group, but someone who enjoys being around others would get a real kick out of group work. Now I think it’s more complicated than that.
Personally, I do not particularly like group work. As a participant I was totally ignored by the group, stuck with the least desirable jobs, or left with all the work while everyone else chatted or played around. I came to dread group work in school.
If I had any hope that the situation would improve as an adult, attending teacher inservices obliterated any chance for a better example. There was no grade or assessment, so other teachers in the training spent their time playing on cell phones, chatting, or doing paperwork rather than getting the assignment done. That meant either I got to do it or there would be nothing.
Lest someone suggest that if you plan a project properly, you guarantee good group work, check out these examples. This was the same class doing the same project at the same time with the same instructions and the same resources.
For a few years, the basic physics of the six simple machines was in the fourth grade curriculum. I took advantage of the situation by planning for my class to end the unit by forming groups and making a three-step Rube Goldberg device, a complex machine that ultimately does something very simple such as turning on a light or opening a door.
One year, I had my class create a very complicated, multiple-step device that ended up closing a circuit to turn on a light. I split my class into heterogeneous groups of 5.
This had two of the worst examples of group work. One of the teams disintegrated. They ran into a problem that they couldn’t solve. One young lady, whose English was not very strong, figured out a solution, but no one paid attention to her. In fact, one young man even commented that she couldn’t possibly figure it out because she couldn’t even figure out English. Instructor intervention was needed at that point, but the group never completely recovered. Although this group had the brightest kids in the class, they had the second-to-the-worst result.
Another team never quite got their plan together. Sure, they turned in the required plan for approval, but then no one followed the plan. Everyone had unique ideas on how to solve the problem I’d given them, but since no one communicated anything, all five of them spent the entire time undoing each other’s work and getting mad at each other. They snitched their final result idea from the previous group.
This project also had one of the best examples of group work. One team worked together better than any other that had done this project before or since. They did this by planning their work, delegating parts to each person, communicating, and working toward consensus. There were no internal subgroups to alienate one or more of the members. Each person’s opinion had value and was considered on the merits of whether the project would work better if the ideas were implemented. When one member did not understand the physics behind someone’s idea, the others explained the background information including a little demonstration and helping the student read the relevant part of the science book. All this done in a way that explained without belittling. This group had a member who had major learning disabilities, but the group found ways to include him on all parts of the project. They gave him useful stuff to do and answered his questions. Although I only required three steps on the project, they designed a machine that had 5, and their final result worked reliably.
Do you have any examples of successful group work adventures?