Assigning Group Work Without Group Skills

As I wait to pick up the kindergartener I am babysitting one Thursday evening, I watch a group of her classmates working together to create a towering building of foam blocks. One is sitting at the outermost edge of the construction site, occasionally placing a block but mostly admiring the building as it increases in size. Another is doing her own thing -- steadily placing block after block on top of one another. She's convinced she's got the Eiffel Tower underway here. A third, with a wild mop of curly golden-brown hair, is telling everyone what to do and how to do it. She's a brilliant dictator, really -- she takes into consideration what the other kids suggest and alternately disregards or translates the suggestion into an implicit order.

Not surprisingly, despite their best efforts, the structure falls moments later and I'm struck by the timeliness of what is going on. Group projects have become the raison d'etre of contemporary education. As a high school student myself, I couldn't possibly count how much group work I've been assigned over the years, in every subject, at every grade level. And I'd venture to say the majority of the times, these group projects are unfulfilling, at best, and unsuccessful, at worse.

I've come to believe it is because educators don't realize that just assigning group projects doesn't make individuals good at collaborating; we actually need to be taught the skills necessary for productive collaboration. If students are equipped with the skills to work in groups -- most importantly, listening and giving and receiving feedback -- then the group benefits. But also, the larger-world implications are huge -- successful students, stronger teacher-student and student-student relationships, and dynamic leaders.

For starters, students need to be taught how to listen. Listening is far more important than talking in school, and yet the quiet, introspective students are constantly painted as "dumb" or having nothing to say. They sometimes receive poor participation grades, and are considered unfocused, pedantic and even slow. I have been in countless classrooms where a student has been trying to solve a problem or articulate a response, and instead of listening or offering guidance, other students are doing various hand motions to get the teacher's attention. I've dubbed them the "sea anemone" and "the window-washer." This has always baffled me. Students must learn to appreciate the journey of arriving at a response, both for themselves and their peers. Group work should not be thought of as a struggle to be heard, but as an effort to hear and receive input.

Only after being able to listen does talking come in. In order to talk effectively and resist the tendency to shout (which, sadly, exists far beyond elementary school), students need to be able to speak concisely, with depth and clarity. Just as students are often taught to use "I statements" when resolving conflicts -- "I feel_____when you_____because_____" -- similar key phrases might be introduced to help facilitate healthy group dynamics. Instead of "Jeez, you're not doing anything," students can be taught to use a gentler and more effective phrase: "Is there anything we can do to help you get this done?" Although it's easy to point fingers and stomp our feet, it actually does little to get work done.

Educators have to rethink how they evaluate group work as well. The prospect of earning an individual grade signals to students that the group can crash and burn as long as her work is okay. Self-protectionism reigns. If the group grade is the only grade, however, pride is taken in the project as a whole. Divide-and-conquer may work when it comes to buying groceries or painting sections of a fence, but when it comes to intellectually rigorous and creative schoolwork, it shouldn't be the status quo. Sometimes you can't rough it alone -- certain parts of a project require more than one person. Certain parts may require help from someone not in the group. Certain parts may even require the aid of the (gasp) teacher.

This isn't high school musical; the fix for intersecting problems is not just to "work together." Making change requires interdependence -- contributing work to the group while depending on and integrating feedback from it. We must be able to know when to listen and when to talk; when to lead and when to follow; when to criticize and when to encourage. And just think -- if schools don't just assign group work, but actually equip kids to successfully negotiate it, the "real world" of tomorrow might be that much more collaborative, too.