Why you hate group work.

Collaboration, it's one of the 21st century skills. There's pretty much unanimous agreement among policy-makers, academic thinkers, and business leaders that collaboration must be a crucial part of our classrooms. Incidentally, there is almost unanimous agreement among teachers and students that group work is painful, cumbersome, annoying, and largely counter-productive. Even popular reality shows rely on group assignments to weed out contestants and create unnecessary drama. Why is something that is so important and crucial to our survival, so painful and dreadful? How can we make it more awesome? What do we do with collaboration?


Part 1: Why you hate group work.


Before our winter holiday break, I informally polled students in my classes. In all of my sections but one, 100% of my students noted that they hate doing group work. In one class two students said that they love group assignments because they can usually con their group mates into doing all of the work. When I speak to teachers whom I admire and respect, whose teaching philosophy is constructive and student-centered, I often ask how they use group work in their classroom. The most popular answer I get is something like, I use it as little as possible. Why is group work such a train wreck??

What experience shows


Individual Accountability

Inherent in our current system of schooling is individual accountability. Not only must our students all learn all of the material they may be assessed on by the State but also they must complete all required work, jumping through all of the correct school hoops. So many students ace all of the tests and quizzes, but are still failing because homework was not completed or an extensive fill-in-the-blank packet (that was incidentally supposed to be practice) had been lost. This inherent need we have, as teachers, to have everything we assign respected and upheld by everyone for the good of the cause seeps into our group assignments in various ways and poisons them. Often this comes in the form of extensive extra steps we add on to the project to make sure everyone is held accountable, but this need not be the case. The very context in which group assignments arise can lead to some killer awkwardness when it comes to grades.

Most group assignments in my experience begin like this. As we get bogged down in the malaise of Acronymia (NCLB, AYP, etc.) and begin to feel guilty about the overall lack of collaboration in our class, we typically decide something like, you know, I could assess this unit with a group project. Immediately, we have a problem, don't we? How do I assess this thing fairly? How can I ensure that all group members are held accountable? How do I deal with the student whose parents call this evening demanding that he or she be assessed individually so that the other group-mates don't bring down his or her GPA? What do I do to encourage students to include all group members while holding everyone individually accountable? How do I avoid having students use this a tool for bullying a group-mate they do not like? How did this become so awkward already?


Arbitrary, artificial, and a bit random...

Group work is usually not foundational. We do not use it to introduce new concepts or as the backbone of establishing and maintaining class routines. We just bring it out for assessment, which is a big part of the awkwardness discussed above. In this way, it may seem a bit random to our students. How would you feel if your principal walked in tomorrow when you were about to give a test and tell you that you would have a co-teacher today, even though you haven't had one in this class all year? This would probably feel a bit weird, but as the test wraps up and you have to organize a new activity and distribute some new materials, you thankfully turn to your new co-teacher for help. Your principal pops in and says that you have to give the co-teacher back now that the assessment is over. 

Not only does this feel random to students, but it's also a bit forced and unnatural. Let's face it, roughly 98% of the group assignments we've ever given or been given could be done perfectly well, if not better, individually. In fact, most of our group assignments are simply tweaks of projects that were great individual assignments last semester or the year before. Changing a great individual project to a team or group assignment is often a death sentence for that project in my experience. Why do we do this? This is the same reason why people love and hate reality shows. My wife used to watch The Apprentice. One of the primary hooks of the show was giving teams assignments that really required one person to complete and watching the drama unfold as everyone tried to divide up the assignment like a pie or fight for control to be the one individual to accomplish the task.

Students are not going to learn to work well with others by being forced to do class assignments, that they could do just fine on their own, in a group of random peers. They will either just divide up the work like a pie, ending up with an end-product that looks like five different people made it, or they will just have one member do all of the work while everyone else sits there and argues or gossips.


Conclusion: Collaboration doesn't = Group work.


Ultimately, group work, as described above, isn't really collaboration at all. You collaborate often in your life in real authentic ways, and none of it is typically in formal groups. As a teacher, I spend most of my time on my little island. Occasionally I have cause to go to a colleague for something that I cannot accomplish for my students on my own. This is collaboration. There is a need. It takes more than one person's skills, talents, and resources to meet that need. The end result is typically awesome. Collaboration usually happens out of need. Group work or cooperative learning does not happen out of need. You are forced to cooperate with someone else to accomplish something you do not need him or her for.

In The Connected Educator- Learning and Leading in a Digital Age, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall point out the differences between cooperative learning and collaboration.. In cooperative learning, “each learner works individually on the same topic and then shares with the group… [so that] one learner’s failure to participate does not negatively affect the outcome or learning of the entire group” (p. 12). Collaboration, on the other hand, “occurs when we approach goals as connected learners, relying on each other’s skills, knowledge, talents, and readiness to share… In other words, each of us brings something unique to the project or task that couldn't have happened without our involvement” (p. 12). 

Some collaboration may happen during group work, if the stars and planets align properly, but the bottom line is, group work is not collaboration.

Part 2: Learning from games


How games get it right & thoughts on Gamifying Classroom Collaboration

from Austin Tate's Informatics Blog
Games are great at fostering collaboration. Why do we put our kids in sports despite their natural athletic prowess or lack-there-of? We do it because we want them to learn the value of teamwork. WoW and similar MMO games are getting a lot of press lately for fostering teamwork as well. Countless businesses and institutions take their employees to retreat centers and low ropes courses every year to participate in team building games. If you haven't seen the TED talk, read the book, or heard about 4th graders in John Hunter's class on NPR, you've missed out on how game mechanics can make real collaboration much easier to accomplish. These students spend part of every year playing "a fiendishly complex game he calls The World Peace Game." (Jim Fleming). What do games do so successfully to foster collaboration, and how does this differ from group work?


Situated & Specialized

Situated meaning, often referred to by James Paul Gee, is the characteristic of games that encourages players to take on identities and behaviors as they inhabit a space, a world if you will. They make games and simulations immersive, interactive, and dynamic experiences. This is much like the identities and behaviors we take on as we inhabit the personal and professional spaces of our lives. What identities and behaviors do you take on at work with colleagues, at work with students, at home with your children, in your grad class, at the dojo or fitness club, etc? I think Gee explains this dynamic and how it applies to our classrooms brilliantly below:



When the The Partnership for 21st Century Skills identifies collaboration as a key survival skill, I imagine that they have something like the cross-functional team that Gee spoke of more in mind than the cooperative learning groups we have used in education for so long. We've tried to make our cooperative groups work like cross-functional teams by limiting knowledge (Jigsaw style) or by assigning arbitrary roles. It just doesn't work. Students know it's arbitrary and artificial, and they've failed to enter the magic circle. The dutch anthropologist Johann Huizinga famously referred to the magic circle to describe the state in which you’re playing a game and you’re set off from the world in a space defined by the play of the game and accepting your role in the game. These tricks work in a game because information is given in authentic simulated context. If we want to develop this level of verisimilitude in our class and encourage students to enter the magic circle, we must be willing to step out of our teaching comfort zone and occasionally role-play our tuckus off. This should also be a part of the fiber of our class and not an occasional project.


A Multi-player Event (one technique)

Learning must be a multi-player event. Look, if you're reading this, you're probably a teacher. You're probably used to taking care of your own professional development. You may be thinking, learning is individual for me. Yet, here you are reading my blog post because, hopefully I have something to add to the conversation. The ideas I express here on my blog come from a lot of personal reading of others' books, others' blogs, discussions of these ideas on Twitter, and, most importantly, face to face conversations with my immediate PLN, which includes my wife, Lanette, my friends and colleagues, Jared and John, and my principal Steve. As professionals, we rely heavily on our PLN's, even when we're working independently to develop lessons, projects, etc. This is real day-to-day collaboration. Yet, we isolate students much of the time. How often can our students even speak to each other in the context of a typical class? What about when they're doing an assignment or even a quiz? Now, that would be collaboration.

Our district completed about two years of professional development and teacher training with APL Associates. While APL Associates are not into promoting gamification in any way (these cats are old school but awesome), they taught me a technique that incorporates collaboration into all levels of classroom interaction. They call it wait time extended, and it works like this. Any time you would have students answer a question, think about a concept, solve a problem, or contribute to a discussion in the course of instruction, have them work with a partner an apply this technique instead. Give students a time limit (use a timer), a task to complete, and a partner to complete it with. Stalk them mercilessly while they do this, interviewing groups as you go for answers you want shared with the whole group, for corrections that may need to be made, and for groups that may need to be redirected. When the time is up, call on your chosen groups from the interviews, then take volunteers, and finally, hit a random group or two just to keep everyone tuned in. If you use this literally every time that you would otherwise have students answer a question, think about a concept, solve a problem, or contribute to a discussion in the course of instruction, the collaboration in your class will increase substantially, making your room a decidedly more multi-player environment.

Real specialization and learner driven collaboration. 

Projects, while an important part of my class are not the primary driver of collaboration. Students are responsible for their own projects, and I use techniques like the one above to build collaboration into day to day survival, rather than big special events. My students work with a partner to do everything, especially quizzes. 

My classroom has a lot of natural specialization going on, particularly for my eighth grade students, who can choose from a variety of projects. In this atmosphere, learner driven collaboration often springs up naturally. A student who is developing video games in Stencyl may ask a student who is doing graphic design to create a logo for the game's official web site. This is the kind of thing we do in the real world. In your classroom, I'm sure you have students with great visual art skills, a head for math and complex logic problems, a way with words, and more. If you want to see deep collaboration happen, assign projects that students really can't complete without the skill sets or natural talents of others. It's an individual assignment that requires help from the kid two rows over or the seat in front of them. Then, let them talk to each other and move around. You may say, "They'll just go to their friends". That's fine. So do we. When I need something, I go first to the people I know. Then when that doesn't work out, I broaden my search. Your students will too. Set limits on how many students on student can help to make sure everyone gets in on the action. Try things. Don't expect perfection. Allow students to become known for their unique interests and specializations by focusing on projects that allow some character to work its way in, rather than on trying to force students to create generic projects cooperatively. Remember, if the first time you try this is a disaster, consider it iteration and not failure.

A Need to Know...

Games are essentially a constant, ongoing assessment, where knowledge is provided on demand as needed. This is like my life at times. Sure, I spent some years studying knowledge that I would need at the ready as I did my job, but the majority of the knowledge I need comes from that constant assessment called life. I watch Youtube videos about how to change the Rotors on an '08 Mazda CX9 because I need to change the rotors on my wife's car. In school, we teach students all kinds of information in a vacuum. Gee refers this to reading game manuals without access to the games. One argument for cooperative projects is that the students should develop better work or at least be more efficient when working together. The thing is, in the typical education environment, there's no necessity for greater efficiency or a superior product. Students have been given the knowledge already and the project typically has such narrowly defined assessment requirements that there isn't much variance to be expected in quality. 

If we must put students in groups to accomplish a given task, consider handing out big problems to solve, that require content they haven't learned yet. Then, instead of making it a huge graded assessment, it is just a part of day-to-day learning. Students are much more grateful for the help of others when they have a large interesting problem to solve, no information on how to solve it, and no looming summative group assessment. This sucks them into the magic circle.  

Final Thoughts

If you take nothing else away from this rambling stroll through my often-convoluted thoughts, hopefully you have this much to hang on to:
  1. You no longer need to feel guilty about not assigning group projects. Group projects are not collaboration anyway.
  2. You are not the only one who hates group work.
  3. The real world looks like games more than it does school, so it pays to make your classroom more game-like.
  4. You can fix your car using Youtube.
DFTBA.


PS: As always, I love conversation. I value your feedback above all, and I would love to know how you've successfully fostered collaboration in your classroom. Maybe group work has been successful for you. I look forward to whatever you have to share. 

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