Saturday, July 16, 2016

Most students don’t hate group work. They hate bad teaching.

Joanne Jacobs had a very interesting post about a topic that’s all the rage these days; group work.

“Teen Hates:  Group Projects”

Hate is a very strong word and as the title points out, teens are probably nearly unanimous with there dislike of doing group projects with their peers.  Let’s see some pictorial examples of said dislike.


Looks like group hatred to me. 


Obviously disgusted with group dynamics here.


The hate is swelling in you now.


It’s fairly evident that when a group of people come together for a common purpose, this includes teenagers, that they will often put out an amazing amount of time and energy to produce a quality product.  People ignore things like the arts and athletics because it’s convenient to do so when discussing the culture of a “classroom.”  Put students together on a mission and the group work not only becomes relevant, it becomes necessary, it becomes fluid, it becomes fun.  Put 35 students together that have little in common except that they happen to be under the same roof together at a given time of the day and you can get negative chaos unless a teacher is really, really prepared.  So let’s look at the link within Ms. Jacobs article (The Atlanta Journal Constitution) and really find out what the problem is with teen angst regarding group work.

“When I ask adolescents what they dislike about school, they seldom mention testing or homework. A common and surprising answer: They resent classes where learning is disrupted and time is wasted.”

When I ask my Seniors why their attendance in classes is bad the answer is pretty similar and usually revolves around the idea that their human capital is being wasted.  The Senioritis will forever exist but becomes manageable when what takes place in class has some value.   When group work is assigned to people that don’t share the same desire for things like Government or Economics (in my case) the result is, predictably, some people do all the work and others ride the coattails of the workers to a simple grade.  This creates resentment, laziness, and a general desire to take group projects out to the woodshed and beat them to death.  This is why group work functions fantastic in the arts and athletics, functions well in Advanced Placement, and is usually fractured within general education courses.

Part of the problem is the concept of the “student-centered classroom”, which sounds really, really neat on the surface and is promoted as the optimal method of teaching teenagers.  Delve past the idealism and you’ll find a million ways to turn your class into disaster area that has no focus and that has goals and lessons that are being created and manipulated by 16 year olds.  And teacher credential programs do a crappy job at preparing teachers for student-centered models.  The professors will assign the group work to prospective teachers (all of which want to be there) as modelling and then give roles to everyone like “facilitator” or “scribe” or whatever and hey look, you have a successful group project.  In reality the group work requires much more preparation and the ability for teachers and students to back check the work of the group, and the work of the members of the group.  The teacher needs to have consistent checks on group progress and needs to come down hard on those that don’t participate.  So in reality a group work classroom isn’t as student centered as it is made out to be if it is done correctly.  Teachers need to prep and prep and prep some more to make sure the project is done correctly. 


I do the occasional group project in my classes and usually they:

-Must be calibrated to where there is no down time for anyone.  Usually the projects are due quick.

-Require multiple entries for engagement.  For political propaganda I want a preliminary plan and who is working on what.

-Have teacher checks upon checks.  For longer assignments I want updates and who is doing what.

-Have peer evaluations at the end.  Those that work get paid.  Those that don’t get nothing.


Why don’t I do more group work?  Well when I was coaching I was doing group work every day and it was successful because the goal and motivation were clear.  I find group work in general education classes to be overall less productive, longer to prepare, and longer to grade.  Group work usually requires a presentation and that takes class time that is valuable.  Sure, some of the best are excellent and worth the watch.  But many can be donkey turd and that ends up being a waste. 

And remember that in the end the problem isn’t the work, it’s the waste of human capital. 

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