Group Work That Works

There’s an intense emphasis on group work and collaboration in today’s education culture. For quiet teachers and students, this can lead to draining experiences, particularly in schools and classrooms where the majority of the interaction throughout the day is expected to be with one another instead of time spent by oneself, allowing for thoughtful reflection and analysis.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, collaboration is an essential part of life and work, but introverts can advocate for group work that works. There are legitimate methods that can help introverted students and teachers tap into the benefits of collaboration without feeling burned out or overwhelmed.

Why it matters

Collaboration gets so much attention nowadays because of the Common Core Standards, which have wide adoption in most states. Common Core encourages educational experiences that are more collaborative in nature and fosters critical thinking and problem-solving skills, two facets of education that are sorely needed at this time in our history.

In general, I’m a fan of Common Core and find that it brings a lot of value to the classroom. Mathematics, in particular, is more sound with the Common Core standards because it forces students to truly develop their number sense and understand problems more deeply. Before I left my classroom teaching position to write full-time, I liked what I saw with Common Core across many areas and found that it was making a true difference in how students learned.

Doing things together at times works just fine. We all need to be willing to listen to shared wisdom and bring ideas to the table. But in some cases, the insistence that it is the superior model just goes too far.

For example, Georgia College tells prospective students, “together is how we do everything at Georgia College.” The University of Chicago library recently unveiled plans for a collaborative learning center in the library (a place you normally think of as being ideal to get away from the noise). An active learning classroom promoted by George Mason University is exactly the place that I’d want to get away from if I wanted to get some work done.

Unfortunately, this isn’t just an isolated case of overzealous extroverts who want to transform everybody into one of them. I find this philosophy to be at work in many different educational settings. An elementary school that recently opened in my area began the year with desks shaped to fit together like a puzzle piece. This is a desk that by itself looks awkward and out of place. Visual cues like these desks create a subtle message that’s hard to miss: if you’re working alone, you’re doing it wrong.

Collaboration that isn’t terrible

Those of us who argue for less group time and more reflective approaches to learning are definitely fighting an uphill battle. Instead of just arguing against excessive collaboration, as important as that is, we may need to present an alternative strategy.

One area to find common ground is to advocate for more effective collaborative practices that also play to the strengths of introverts. For example, many schools are investing heavily in software tools from Microsoft and Google. Online and shared collaboration through documents and cloud-based solutions offer the best of both worlds: introverts, like myself, often relish the time to work on a computer and discover new topics or related research with just a few clicks on the keyboard.

The synchronous nature of online collaboration means that many of the essential benefits of working together—shared ideas, developing a group synergy, and moving towards a common goal—can be achieved. But for many introverts, it can be less draining than doing this with intermittent bouts of small-talk and the time constraints of the day’s schedule.

There’s also some hope to be found in the push for less lecture time. Yes, there is a considerable amount of group work that’s expected from a method where the teacher is supposed to be the “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage.” This paradigm shift can be used to introverts’ advantage if they’re allowed the freedom to explore and do research on their own at times.

Finally, as Abigail Walthausen argues in The Atlantic, we shouldn’t give up on the lecture. She cites a 2010 study from Harvard Kennedy School entitled “Is Traditional Teaching Really All That Bad?”

In the research, Guido Schwerdt and Amelie Wuppermann attempted to quantify the success of the lecture model. They gleaned from the data that students who experienced a lecture compared to other classroom methods had superior learning gains compared to those of their fellow students.

Of course, one study doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a slam-dunk case. More research is needed about the efficacy of various learning styles and even how they may impact different temperaments and personality types.

What needs to change is the insistence that group and cooperative learning is automatically superior to working alone. The most profound insights, creative bursts, and conclusions often come when one is undertaking self-reflection or analyzing a set of data. This isn’t to completely discount the value that comes with cooperative learning situations. It’s just that the pendulum needs to swing back in a more balanced direction.

Share your thoughts.

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  • amylynn1022

    I’m GenX, not Millenial, so the big push towards group work was just starting when I was in high school. What I saw then was a lot of magical thinking about group work – there was this idea that if you just put students into groups something magical would happen, even if there was no guidance given and little to no support or supervision from the teacher. Even the teachers who tried didn’t seem to know how to deal with the pitfalls of group work. The result was that I did very little effective group work in school – most groups I participated devolved into social hour. In that case either one or two people did the work or the group threw something together at the last minute that was worst that anything they would have produced by themselves. While I hope that things have gotten better I am not optimistic.

    Group work is a skill which has as much to do with self-discipline, planning and keeping your promises as it does expressing yourself in front of others. (Not to mention knowing when not to express yourself…) These are not introverted or extroverted skills. In the end I learned how to work in a group by joining committees and tasks forces in my church. We keep hearing employers complain about graduates not knowing soft skills and actually teaching group work would be a good way to do that. That said, I think we need to get away from the overuse of group work. In the real world you need to be able to work by yourself and make your own decisions and if we teach our youth to check in with a group for everything I shudder to think what will happen.

    • georgi still

      Group study has served me well. I needed to learn to listen carefully before I blurted out information, no matter how insightful. Others see it differently or not at all–often. Communication is critical to a prosperous society. An effective leader is also critical. This too can be taught. It requires skills that we all need to learn.

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  • This is really thoughtful Derek. In my opinion, it’s essential to bring this dialogue into the forefront of classroom and teaching design. It’s great how you’ve pointed out some biases and extremes, while maintaining that the ideal is balance – not students working alone 24/7. For me this conversation becomes even more exciting when we think about how this balance can serve all students. Spaces and education experiences designed for introverts have huge potential to serve students with learning differences. When we create opportunities for students to value alone time, personal space and independent learning along side collaboration, the bonus is “built in” and visible choices that are available to students at any time in the classroom. These choices can lead to proactive social and emotional self regulation, deeper reflection and self awareness. This autonomy allows students to develop vocabulary and awareness around what works for them and when. I’m so glad you’re tackling this conversation. Thanks for asking good questions and responding to current trends in one direction!

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