The Perils Of Kids Working in Groups

Teacher and writer Diana Senechal has a new book. It's titled Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. She guest-blogged about it at JoanneJacobs.com today. I'm gonna buy her book. But for now, here is an intriguing essay. She writes:

It is unclear what the future of group work holds, but I hope that it will be given its proper place–that it will be used when it actually serves the lesson and not when it doesn’t....

The most common complaint about group work is that some students do much work than others. But there are many more problems.

Senechal goes on to describe the problems:

First, because students lack perspective on the subject, they are likely to disregard opinions that don’t make immediate sense to them. They may focus on those points of view that help them finish the task quickly. If someone in the group sees a problem with the entire premise, that person will likely be ignored.

Second (and related), because group work tends to focus on a task, the group members may not take time with questions that require time. They may take the shortest route to the goal, which for some topics and subjects is not the best.

Third, because group work can easily devolve into chaos, it is often highly structured, with specific roles assigned to the members. One member may be a time-keeper, another a note-taker. This, ironically, can lead to a miniature society of leaders and laborers.

Fourth, the very noise and bustle of group work can interfere with good thinking. It can be hard to concentrate in a room full of talk.

Fifth, in a small group, the social relationships become paramount. If the members are friends, they may enjoy what they are doing together. If they don’t get along, they may stare at their desks most of the time. Students need some respite from social interaction. Schools should give them room to learn without social activity at every turn. If given respite, they will ultimately have more to bring to groups, as they will have had a chance to form their own thoughts.

Sixth, people want to fit into a group, even if they don’t want to want to fit in. They may try to maintain the group’s approval; they may hesitate to say things that challenge the group. The group may appear to be in agreement when in fact it is not. How often have I heard a group leader tell the class, “We think…”? In many of those cases, it is likely that they didn’t all think whatever it was the leader said they thought.

Seventh, group work takes an awful lot of time, and much of that time could (and should) be spent on extended instruction, question-and-answer dialogue, and whole-class discussion. Having group work in every lesson means that other things won’t happen. This affects how the subjects are taught.

Now, if all of these drawbacks of group work are kept in mind, one can find a place for it.

My observation is:

I generally agree. Sure, I've seen incredible group-work sometimes in various No Excuses charter schools. My colleague Laura was at Excel Academy 2 weeks ago, and marveling about their 5th graders having amazing, rich small group discussions about literature. To solve #2 and #3 above: The teacher holds kids accountable for both behavior and the work product.

But it's pretty tough to teach this way, sort of an "intermediate" to "advanced" teaching technique. I'm glad that Senechal has advanced this thesis. We advise our trainees to avoid dividing kids into small groups during the rookie year of teaching -- at least not until they can run consistently tight "traditional" (every kid at 100% effort and focus) classes.

As an Atul Gawande-like checklist: if you as a teacher can't delineate exactly how you'll overcome/address the 7 concerns which Senechal identifies, then you should be wary of dividing kids into small groups during class.