Working in a group is a challenge. I have met very few adults who have had effective experiences with small learning groups. My own experiences in collaborative groups have resulted in endless frustration, but research suggests that small group learning builds problem-solving skills and promotes teamwork (Fink, 2013). Indeed, I have facilitated some cooperative and collaborative group assignments in elementary classes that did fantastically well. Effective group work does have benefits, but there are challenges to overcome.
During my 14 years as an elementary teacher, I went through at least five teacher inservices every year. Many of them were slide show presentations that were read by the presenter verbatim, but in the latter half of my career, many of the workshops involved breaking into small groups for discussion or a quick assignment.
Sometimes there were subgroups composed of teachers in the same grade level or teachers who had worked together at the school for a long time. This subgroup marginalized anyone who did not meet the group’s characteristic (Michaelsen & Sweet, 2008). The marginalized students would be ignored or given whatever drudgery work no one else wanted.
The other extreme was just as damaging. Many of these teacher inservices were mandatory and often took time away from the extensive list of tasks that needed to be done. As a result, the people attending them were not motivated to be there. Many brought paperwork to do. Others played games on their cell phones or chatted with those nearby. When the time came to do an assignment, the distractions did not go away, so one or two people ended up doing the work for the group. Davis (2009) recommends having a structure in place to deal with those that shirk their part of the work, but with these short, six-hour inservices, there was no consequence, which only encouraged the behavior.