Education Opinion

Rethinking Group Work

By Contributing Blogger — March 13, 2017 7 min read
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This post is by Julia Jacobsen, a third grade teacher at High Tech Elementary Chula Vista.

I hate group work. Don’t you?

At my first day of teacher orientation, I spent the day learning about border issues with a team of other new teachers. We visited the U.S.-Mexico border and learned from professors at the local university. After a day of rich learning came the group work. We were tasked with creating a way to share our learning with other groups who had different experiences. We selected some cardboard, pipe cleaners, and pompoms, and then argued a little bit about what metaphor would best represent issues on the border. One group member shared a plan that didn’t make much sense to me, and I shared a plan that didn’t make much sense to him. We “compromised” by including elements of both ideas into a plan that didn’t make much sense to anyone and slapping together a product by the deadline.

Group work can also exhilarating and rewarding, and it can elevate my work. One year after that orientation, my teaching team and I designed a project that culminated with fourth graders embarking cardboard boats that they had built and launching into the harbor. I don’t think I could have made it through this experience without my team.

Group work holds the promise of being a pathway to equity. By working together, students will not only learn more deeply, but will also learn how to collaborate and value different kinds of people. Additionally, as a teacher who cares about deeper learning, I have the feeling that my students should be doing group work. We work in a collaborative environment as adults, hoping to foster a collaborative environment among students. Group work is progressive education’s direct path to a utopian society. Except for when it isn’t.

As a teacher, I want my students to collaborate, but they often struggle with group tasks. I know that other teachers have similar challenges.

“What if there are students in a group who are just not motivated?”

“What do you do if there is one person in the group doing all of the work?”

There are lots of ways to address group work issues, but in this article, I would like to discuss one in particular: Don’t do group work. Not unless group work will serve your goals.

For the past three years, I have been digging into the question of how to make group work more equitable and more engaging through improvement science. We have worked to improve the group-worthiness of the tasks we bring to our students, to articulate group work expectations at each grade level, and to identify the norms and language that students need to be successful in a group.

When teachers bring a dilemma to our improvement team, my first impulse was often to problem solve: “How can we help students work better together with this task?” Now, my first wonderings are, “What are your hopes for this project? Why did you choose to make it a collaborative project?” Often, the project is a group task simply because we think that it should be, without having given much thought to why (and if group work actually serves that purpose).

Last year, as a fourth grade teacher, I really wanted my students to participate in book clubs. When book clubs went well, they were awesome. Students got more excited and thought more deeply about a book because they talked about it with their friends. However, for the most part, book clubs were not going well. It was important to me that all students were able to have some choice about which book to read, so for book clubs, I offered audiobook options for students who struggled with reading. I saw that some students still weren’t finishing the reading, which led to zombie-like conversations, so I created structures and supports to help students finish the reading. I communicated with parents, created reading logs and goal-setting routines. I invited volunteers to read aloud with students and carved out extra time for students who needed it. Many of my book clubs were still having boring conversations, so we developed skills to help students have an interesting conversation. We worked on listening and building on each other’s ideas. We worked on respectfully disagreeing. We worked on asking good “volleyball” questions that would bounce all around the group because everyone had something to say about them. Still, lots of book club discussions were not the engaging exchange of ideas I had envisioned.

Finally, I pulled a group of students and asked them how we could make book clubs better. Their response? Don’t do book clubs. My students said that four or five people were too many to have a good conversation. A group of four or five was likely to include a friend (or a not-friend) who would get them off topic. Also, in a group of four or five, they would have to wait a long time to say what they wanted. By the time it was their turn, they would have forgotten what they wanted to say, or the conversation had moved on. They said that it would be better to have a conversation just between two people. I could see where they were coming from, but I wasn’t ready to let go of group conversations altogether.

As an adult, one thing I appreciate about a good book club is that I get to hear multiple perspectives about the book that I may not have considered as I was reading it. Although I still see this as the endgame for my students, I can also see that it’s really hard for them to listen and to engage independently in complex conversations with multiple people. They are still developing the capacity to hear a new perspective and allow their own mind to be changed. I don’t think that this is a skill that naturally develops with time. (It’s clear to me in the current political climate that hearing other perspectives and shifting our opinions based on new evidence is not something that humans are simply inclined to do as they mature into adulthood.)

As a middle elementary teacher, it’s much more important to me that my students develop the capacity to really hear one another, and consider each other’s perspectives than that they work in groups of four or five. Instead, I focus on building the foundation for the great group work that is to come; this means developing a class culture that values flexibility, empathy, and reasoning.

Flexibility is a tough one. We spend a lot of time celebrating epiphanies--changes in thought based on new understandings. Even as an adult, it’s hard to let go of “being right,” and my students are no different.

My students have an astounding capacity for empathy. This is part of what continuously renews my energy to teach. When my current third graders are introduced through read-alouds to different perspectives and identities they had never considered, they are quick to care, quick to cry, quick to be outraged on behalf of their new literary friends. Once they have made these connections, they are also able to connect these feelings and experiences to those in their own lives. For example, after reading Enemy Pie, they are able to consider how someone they thought of as an “enemy” might become a friend.

We also spend a lot of time working to share how we know things, and looking at the validity of our reasoning. This skill cuts across all subject areas. In math, students are consistently showing how they got to an answer, and getting feedback from others about the clarity or the validity of their approach. To give feedback, students work to understand how another classmate was thinking about the problem. In reading, students are working to find evidence for theories about their character. In science, my students are debating whether bottled water or tap water is better, while also thinking about why they hold their opinions and learning how new evidence can impact their thinking.

By jumping into group work without the ability to hear, consider, and care for one another, students are practicing unhealthy habits--sticking to their own perspective in the face of different perspectives, or swaying their perspective to match that of their friends. They will have plenty of time to practice that as adults if we don’t work on hearing, considering, and caring first.

This year, I haven’t done book clubs yet. Instead, I started off the year getting kids to really love books. That was my main goal. We then started working on sharing small interesting things with a partner on the carpet. We built up to having one partner share while the other asked follow-up questions for a certain amount of time before switching. In a couple weeks, we will combine pairs and begin our first-ever book clubs. (When they start, they will last only five minutes.)

Group work can be awesome, when it is around an awesome task and is awesomely facilitated. Instead of defaulting to group work, let’s be thoughtful about what it takes to work well in a group and set students up for success.

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