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2010 July 17

Group work

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One of the most popular fads in education from kindergarten through grad school these days is “group work”. The reasons given for group work are often non-pedagogical—the most common being that students will have to work in groups in the real world, so they need to get used to it.  Of course, a lot of work in the real world is done by individuals not working in groups, so this is a rather bogus reason.  But not completely—big projects are done in groups, and students do need to learn how to work together on a common goal.

If done badly (as it often is), group work serves no function educationally. Top students in college have learned to avoid group projects at all costs, since they end up doing all the work, often at the last minute after other members of the group have failed to deliver on their promises.  Even when the other students are diligent, the top students have to redo or correct the work of the less competent, with the result being that the top students end up doing more work for a less-good result than if they had done it by themselves.  This naturally leads top students to be suspicious of working in groups, which does not prepare them for group-work in the “real” world, thus defeating one of the key goals of the pro-group-work advocates.

Even for students in the middle of the class, the extra work of coordinating effort and keeping everyone on task increases the effort so much that doing the work separately would still be faster for most projects.

Devlin makes an argument for “progressive” group work as opposed to “traditional” teacher-directed instruction. He provides evidence from a couple of studies by Boaler, but ends up rather dismissing one problem: “Of course, teaching math in the progressive way requires teachers with more mathematical knowledge than does the traditional approach (where a teacher with a weaker background can simply follow the textbook – which incidentally is why American math textbooks are so thick). It is also much more demanding to teach that way.”  I suspect that the differences Boaler was measuring could as easily have been how much math the teachers knew, rather than the difference in teaching style. Devlin claims that “real work” consists almost entirely of collaborative group problem solving—he has no use for people thinking by themselves or for themselves.

But this post is not a polemic against group work.  I often teach classes (generally at the grad school and senior college level, where most of my teaching has been) that require group work. The key, for me, is that the projects must be large enough that a single student can’t complete them alone—not just that the bottom-of-the-class students can’t complete them alone, but that the top-of-the-class students can’t.

Of course, few math or science projects in K–12 are that big—even 6-month-long science-fair projects are usually more effectively done by one student than by a team.  Theater, dancing, music, and sports all provide real group efforts that cannot be duplicated by an individual (though each also has opportunities for solo work as well). Even writing classes offer opportunities for newspapers, literary magazines, and other group efforts in which multiple people can contribute effectively. In math and science, the opportunities for real group effort are much harder to find, particularly at the lower grade levels.  About all I’ve seen that really uses team efforts are the FIRST robotics competitions.

Even at the college level, it is rare to have real group projects that aren’t more easily done by individuals until the senior level.  By then, students have often been so burned by badly designed “group” exercises that they can’t work together effectively.  So the challenge for teachers is how to teach students to work effectively in groups, without making a fake project that works against the pedagogic goals.

In one senior-design engineering course I’ve co-taught, the project is split into two parts.  The first semester is dedicated to students forming teams and writing proposals for their projects, and the second is dedicated to actually doing the design and prototyping work.  We required the book Teamwork and Project Management for the first semester and had students do group presentations on the content of the text (each chapter being presented by a different group).  This undoubtedly got them to read the chapter they needed to present, and probably helped them with their presentation skills, but I was not very impressed with the book.  In fact, I found it so badly written that I never got more than halfway through.  If anyone knows a readable book on putting together teams to do engineering projects, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

I’ve also coached a middle-school math team, where the students individually were top of their classes (though still with a pretty wide range of ability), but had never worked together on math.  Giving them problems that were challenging enough to get all participating was hard.  Most of the time, what happened was that one of the students would be so far ahead of the rest that there was no group effort, just one student thinking out loud. I considered a partial success when I got two students thinking out loud at the same time.  Full success was getting the students to check each other’s work and correct mistakes.  This is a much more modest goal than real group effort, but the math team’s goal was to do well in a timed math contest, not to do real collaborative work on a project.  Their best strategy was to have the top kids thinking out loud while the rest checked their work and made sure that every question was answered fully.  (As it turned out, this strategy did work—they won the county math team contest.  Two of the five also won the county individual math contests for their grades.)

Riley Lark has some good advice on training students to do group work for K-12 teachers, giving specific roles for each member of the team.  He does not address how to design group work that is actually easier to do in a group than individually.  I would be very interested to hear his suggestions on that more vexing problem.

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35 Comments »

  1. Designing the group work is very difficult. I could not do it; I rely on the books available at CPM.org – those folks have done that work for me. In fact, I think that designing the work would be impossible for a teacher to do well, but I also think that, in an ideal world, the teacher would not be designing his own curriculum. (Bold statement, I know. Maybe I’ll back it up in another post.)

    CPM succeeds by giving open-ended problems with more than one solution, or finding situations where a lot of evidence is required, so that it is possible for four kids to engage individually within their group. They are wary of the quick kid doing everything, and have some techniques to stop that from happening. Some of the techniques are intrinsic: work that cannot be done in a single way. Others are more artificial: the quick kid is simply not allowed to do all of the work. Of course some of them hold the quick kid back, and of course some of them rush the slow kid forward, but this is not a problem with group work, it’s a problem with teaching a group.

    Comment by Riley — 2010 July 18 @ 05:15 | Reply

    • I agree that teaching groups inherently causes quick kids to be held back a bit and slow kids to be pushed a bit too fast. In a post some time I’ll talk about ways to reduce that problem (hint: it’s placement by achievement, not age, and it certainly isn’t differentiation, which exists mainly in the minds of dreamers).

      I believe that group work increases the difficulty of teaching each student at his or her own level. I would be very interested in hearing from teachers how they make sure that there is adequate challenge for the brightest students in the class. And I mean meaningful engagement with the course content, not the challenge of dealing with other kids who expect you to do their work for them and aren’t willing to (or capable of) doing a good job themselves. What do you do with the kid who has finished the day’s work before you have finished laying out the problem for the rest of the class?

      My impression of CPM (second-hand at best, so I’m willing to be corrected), is that they are willing to sacrifice the top kids in the interest of rather fuzzy pedagogical ideals. Certainly the Mathematically Correct review of CPM pans it for having rather thin content.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 July 18 @ 08:38 | Reply

      • While I certainly wouldn’t want to conclude anything based on my anecdotal evidence, I haven’t seen CPM hindering the skills of top kids. A number of my former students have scored 30+ on the math portion of the ACT and gone on to major in engineering. But as I said, that’s only in my experience. We both know that there’s a lot more to teaching math than the textbook.

        As for Wayne Bishop’s review, that pertains to only to the old version of CPM Algebra 1. I taught from that text for several years and agree with Wayne that the first half of the text moved too slowly on material that many people wouldn’t consider to belong in Algebra 1. The new “Connections” series from CPM does a much better job with the first half of Algebra 1 and CPM is wrapping up its revisions of their pre-algebra texts to match.

        I’ve heard a number of math “traditionalists” pan CPM for being too fuzzy, and heard a similar number of “reformists” state that CPM was too traditional. It’s worth checking out for yourself if you get a chance.

        Comment by Raymond Johnson — 2010 July 23 @ 12:07 | Reply

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Leslie Graves, Emily Berk. Emily Berk said: Thoughts on school group work projects http://bit.ly/cctoDH #gifted [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Group work « Gas station without pumps -- Topsy.com — 2010 July 18 @ 07:42 | Reply

  3. There are several points that I want to address here. If you want more detail on any of my points, feel free to visit my website for plenty of detailed articles on the subject of team/group work or check out my book, “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development.”

    First, the idea that most work is done by individuals is, fundamentally, flawed. If you are writing iPhone apps and uploading them, then you might really be working alone. But for most of us, we have to interact with other people at some point. If you’re a teacher in front of a classroom, you are in a group setting. If you are a salesman, you are in a group interaction whenever you meet with a client. The psychology of group interaction kicks in as soon as you put two or more people together. Therefore, learning group skills is a vital life skill.

    The most difficult thing to realize about teams is that they move at their own pace. There is a process by which a disparate group of individuals transforms itself into a functioning team (or fails to make said transformation!).
    Unfortunately, failing is far more common than succeeding.

    It’s not enough to just put a group of talented people together: anyone who remembers the Olympic Basketball Dream Team of a few years ago might also remember that they never achieved the level of play that everyone expected from a team consisting of the top players in America.

    The fact is, these athletes, as good as they were, had never learned how to work with one another.

    To quote two of the most prominent psychologists alive today, Ed Schein and Susan Wheelan:

    Ed Schein, professor emeritus at MIT: “Only Americans believe that individual performance is superior to team performance.”

    Susan Wheelan: “My definition of insanity is an inability to function as part of a group.”
    We appear to have a contradiction between these two psychologists and many of our experiences! And Ed Schein certainly dealt with at least a couple of gifted students at MIT.

    Susan’s point: until fairly recently, exile (from the group) was a fate worse than death. Survival apart from the group is difficult, especially without modern technology.

    Group affiliation with some group is critical… just look around and see how many groups you’ve affiliated with, either formally or informally.

    Why do we need to be part of groups? We social reference reality. We’re constantly looking to how others respond to check our own responses. Think of it this way: I may not be able to see the tiger, but if I see you reacting to the tiger, that may buy me a few extra seconds to react. Quite simply, there is a huge amount of information constantly impacting us. Our brains can only process a minute fraction of that data, so we’ve developed heuristics to enable rapid decision making with incomplete information. Taken to an extreme, this sort of social referencing can lead to groupthink and mob behaviors.

    However, in order to use these heuristics correctly, we need to be able to “trust” the sender. In this case, that means developing a level of comfort and familiarity with our team mates and an understanding of how they work.

    That process takes time. And while it’s quite easy to slow the process, it’s extremely difficult to accelerate it. In fact, the research (e.g. Susan Wheelan’s work) indicates that there are some minimum times that simply cannot be shortened.

    By the way, it turns out that until very recently most studies of group behavior and leadership were done on stage one groups. Many of the other studies failed to take the developmental level of the group into account when analyzing their results. That means that much of what is common wisdom about team behavior is limited or just plain incorrect.

    There are five stages in what is known as Tuckman’s model of group development.

    Stage 1. Forming – Minimum time about 2 months
    Stage 2. Storming – Minimum time about 2 months
    Stage 3. Norming – Minimum time about 1 month
    Stage 4. Performing
    Stage 5. Adjourning

    Tuckman assumed that the stages progressed in only one direction: from less mature, early stage groups, to more mature, late stage groups.

    In fact, groups can get stuck at any stage and can also go backwards. While a group can only move upward one stage at a time, a group can fall back several stages at once. It’s kind of like climbing a mountain: if you fall down, you can go a long way before you stop and then you have to work your way back up again.

    Each of these stages has certain psychological characteristics associated with it (Susan Wheelan’s book on Group Processes is an excellent reference for those wishing to read in depth on the topic). I’m going to focus primarily on stages 1 and 2 and how to navigate them since most school groups won’t have time to get further.

    1. Forming – characterized by issues of dependency and inclusion
    2. Storming – counter-dependency and fight
    3. Norming – building trust and structure
    4. Performing – High performance

    Forming issues:

    When a group first comes together, most of the energy is focused on personal safety, acceptance, and avoiding rejection. There’s a great deal of uncertainty about how the project should be done, whether or not the other kids will pull their weight, exactly what the goals of the project are, and so forth. In fact, a major point of a forming group is that goals are unclear and no one will ask for clarity. Anxiety is high.

    In practical terms, I’ve observed this playing out in one of the following ways:

    The kids get wrapped up in argument over exactly what the assignment entails. Sometimes they’ll ask the teacher for clarification, but not always. It depends how comfortable or uncomfortable they are with admitting that they don’t know.

    More common, though, is that nothing happens. The kids put off the project as long as possible because they’re nervous about dealing with one another, afraid of rejection, or argument. When they do meet, everyone is quick to agree to anything unless someone has a personal stake in the outcome. After the meeting, at which everyone agrees to get certain things done, little or nothing gets done until the deadline approaches.

    A third common response is that one kid ends up doing most of the work while the others either sit around or, in some cases, actively sabotage the process because they want to see the smart kid fail. This is the dynamic that most of us have probably experienced at one time or another.

    You see, another part of a stage one group is that the members need dependable and directive leadership – which may not be available! In an early stage group, the leader is the source of safety and direction, because the leader has the only clearly defined role.

    In a typical school group, there is rarely a designated leader. That means that there is no one to provide structure, unless someone aggressively takes the leadership role. That sometimes happens, and it can certainly work, although the self-appointed leader may not be any good at managing discussion or dividing up the work. The leader may simply do most of the work to make sure it gets done!

    In a formal group with a defined leader, the group will tend to build an identity around the leader. This can have its own set of problems, but at least the group has something in common. In a typical school group, you don’t have that core identity for the group to start with. Since commitment to the group at this stage is based on supporting and identifying with the leader, the group can’t coalesce. The mission of the group, completing a project and getting a grade, is too abstract for most members without it being embodied in someone.

    Making things worse is that in an early stage group disagreement is not encouraged and conformity is high. The group will punish members who don’t conform. The problem is that the group doesn’t know what to have people conform to. As a result, it will pick something, anything, to reduce the uncertainty and increase structure. The group will then proceed to “punish” anyone who violates the group norms. What I’ve observed in my college students is that what the group conforms to is an image of its members as laid-back, not very concerned about the project, no one is better than anyone else. Again, we can see where this is going: that gifted kid who cares deeply about the grade and is concerned about getting the project done well is already at odds with the group. This makes it easy for the rest of the group to unite against the person violating the rules of the group. In more extreme cases, the need to punish the deviant player is so strong that a bad grade on the project may be seen as acceptable because that person cares more than anyone else. The attitude is that, “Yes, it hurts us, but it hurts you more.”

    Therefore, we have a group where there is no sense of group identity, no structure, unclear goals, lack of leadership, an insistence upon conformity to something that is frequently counterproductive, and a tendency to shun the person who is most driven to get the job done.

    One might think, therefore, that the natural behavior is for a leader to emerge and take control of the group. This is somewhat correct, in that for a group to function as a group, a leader must emerge. In business work groups, there is always a leader, whether or not that person is acknowledged as such by management, given a title, etc. Groups without a leader do not perform well, and typically remain a collection of individuals who might happen to be wandering in the same general direction.

    Unfortunately, becoming the leader can be tricky.

    One of the behaviors I’ve observed in many school groups is a strong ethic that no one should be doing more than anyone else. Much to my surprise, this isn’t because the students claimed that it was unfair that they should be doing more than another member of their team. Rather, it was because they felt that one someone does more than the rest of the group, that person is trying to take control and make everyone else look bad.

    The next problem is that leadership is viewed as dominance: the leader is seen as the person who bosses everyone else around, shoots down their perfectly good ideas, and so forth. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of popular support in literature, film, TV, and real life, for that view. Plenty of managers have little tolerance for team members who do anything other than follow instructions. When someone tries to overtly take charge of the group, the response is to push back: “Who died and made you god?”

    The longer the group goes without a leader, the harder it is for a leader to emerge. The group becomes comfortable in its passive, avoidant state. If there is a high degree of anxiety or concern about failing the project, the approaching deadline may serve to motivate the group to finally pull together enough and get something done. The anxiety over failure outweighs the anxiety over actually working together.

    Storming issues:

    There’s an old saying that a husband and wife aren’t really married until they’ve had their first fight. The ability to argue and still maintain the relationship is critical to developing trust. That happens during this stage.
    The second stage is particularly difficult for the leader, who is suddenly being challenged by the group. Frequently, the group will split into those who support the leader and those who are united by their opposition.

    Trust is still very fragile and argument can easily become nasty. Students will often complain to the teacher about one another, but refuse to talk to each other. Conversely, students who are blowing off the project will ignore the other team members unless the teacher gets involved, leading to a self-stoking cycle (you might see this behavior starting to manifest in stage one). The key elements are that conflict can easily become personal and talking with the other party will feel nonproductive. The poorer the conflict management skills of the kids, the worse this can get.
    What is actually happening here is that the group members are becoming sufficiently comfortable with their identity in the group to start caring more about how things are done and what the outcome should be. Painful though it often is, this stage is telling you that they care. However, if the conflict is allowed to become too serious, that can destroy the group.

    It is vitally important at this stage that members in general and the leader in particular not get sucked into battle. Conflict needs to be defused and redirected. Once battle is joined, however, the group dynamic can be irreparably damaged. Yes, even in the business world with paychecks and everything else at stake! It is important to realize that there is a difference between avoiding conflict and thus being run over and defusing or redirecting conflict (in the same way that the judo/jujitsu/aikido master does not directly oppose the punch, but steps to one side and helps the attacker lie down and take a rest). A personal attack needs to be reframed as an attack on the problem:
    “You idiot, you don’t know what you’re doing!”

    Wrong: “I am not an idiot, I know what I’m doing! You don’t understand how to do this.” (okay, I admit that the conversation will probably be a little bit more emotionally laden than that, but you get the idea!).

    Right: “You’re right, I’m not sure how to handle this. How do you think we should go about it?”

    Will reframing always work? Of course not. But the better you get at it, the better your odds will be.
    Because trust is still weak, you’ll see a great deal of jockeying for power. This manifests as cliques forming to attempt to exert greater sway over group decisions. At the same time, the group is highly intolerant and suspicious of coalitions and subgroups. In other words, two kids might team up and simultaneously denounce others for teaming up. “We’re just trying to get things done, but they’re trying to destroy the project!” is a common refrain.

    This stage also takes at least 2 months to work through. Over 50% of groups never get past this stage.

    Because many school groups are subsets of a larger stage 1 classroom, the student groups will “inherit” the group status of the parent (classroom) group, and rapidly move into stage 2.

    See the problem here? Most school groups last just long enough to allow the group to reach the most unpleasant stage of development.

    Norming Issues: aka trust and structure

    I’ll briefly touch on norming and performing even though it is extremely rare for classroom groups to reach these stages.

    At this point, the group has learned to management conflict and argue productively. There’s a sense of safety and trust and a feeling that you can suggest ideas and disagree with someone without having your head bitten off.
    Leadership roles start to spread to other group members; the leader becomes more of a consultant, delegating responsibilities to those group members who can best handle each role. That’s what trust and structure is all about!
    The members of the group are increasingly willing to talk with one another. They’ve become comfortable with each other and they believe that communicating is worth while.

    The group is much more willing to trust individuals operating alone or in subgroups to handle different parts of the project. This is different from stage one, where members might be working individually, but not out of a sense of loyalty to the group. At stage one, they’re working for themselves and it’s tolerated more out of an unwillingness to confront anyone that for any other reason.

    A key element of this stage is that personal goals and group goals are moving into alignment. This is extremely important: so long as personal goals and group goals do not align, most people will chose their personal goals. There is an “I” in team!

    Because the group has developed trust, group members can now argue effectively and provide support and encouragement to one another.

    Performing: the group is now a team

    Sadly, most people never experience this stage.

    At this point, everyone on the team shares a common vision, they buy into the team’s goals, and they understand how helping the team accomplish its goals will also support their personal goals. In other words, goal alignment now exists. Because the level of trust is now strong, you see much more delegation and reduced supervision. The leader is more focused on keeping the group running smoothly and avoiding problems than in day to day direction: sort of like driving, it may not look like you’re doing much to someone who doesn’t drive, but it’s still a very demanding task because you have to be ready to react to unexpected events, keep the car (team) fueled (rested and focused), anticipate problems, etc.

    Whereas in stage one, members conform to the group out of fear of punishment or because they are searching for some sort of group identity, by stage four the group has developed norms that support the tasks to be accomplished. As a result, members accept the norms because they agree with them. At the same time, deviation is tolerated, even encouraged, if it brings positive results. There is also tolerance for mistakes. So you see, the fact that James Kirk gets away with breaking the rules all the time has a foundation in group dynamics!

    Another key fact about a stage four team is that it contains exactly as many people as it needs to accomplish its goals. So there’s a definite relationship between the nature of the problem and how it decomposes into parts and the success of the group.

    Conflict is brief but intense. Members know how to argue supportively and trust one another. The team has strategies for managing conflict.

    The team encourages creative problem solving and innovative ideas.

    The toughest part of running a stage four group is keeping it there.

    Comment by Stephen R Balzac — 2010 July 18 @ 13:16 | Reply

    • I’ve seen Tuckman’s model before. We even taught it in our senior-design engineering class. It is not a bad model, but it is very pessimistic. It implies that short-duration projects are inherently impossible (or at least doomed to inefficiency).

      But I know this is not the case. My son participates in 2-week theater workshops each summer that reach the level of highly performing groups in just 2 weeks. Some of the members of the group have participated in other workshops with the same teachers (my son has been in 19 productions with them over 6 years), but usually about half the group are in their first production. I wish I knew how they so consistently got high performance levels from mixed groups of kids time after time!

      It is not just a matter of theater being some magic framework that pulls kids together—one of his most recent theater experiences (a school drama class) produced one of the worst productions I’ve seen after a semester or more of working together.

      One of my original points in the blog posts is echoed in your comment: “Another key fact about a stage four team is that it contains exactly as many people as it needs to accomplish its goals.” That is the biggest trouble with most groups formed in school: that they have too many people in them for the task, which would be more productively done by one person.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 July 18 @ 16:26 | Reply

  4. “I’ve seen Tuckman’s model before. We even taught it in our senior-design engineering class. It is not a bad model, but it is very pessimistic. It implies that short-duration projects are inherently impossible (or at least doomed to inefficiency).

    But I know this is not the case.”

    You are correct, it is not the case. That’s a misunderstanding of Tuckman’s model. Work is accomplished at all levels of group development; however, the energy input to results becomes increasingly favorable as the group progresses. Stage one groups can be productive, and can work very well in the context of directive leadership and followers. I would bet that if you have a group of kids and teachers, there is no question who is charge (teachers), no matter how much input the kids are permitted.

    The fact that many of the kids in the example you cite are working together and/or with the same teachers over and over helps to improve the group’s overall performance. However, I’ll bet that it’s still a stage one group. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve been told that Tuckman’s model doesn’t work, that “this group” made it to Stage 4 in a couple of weeks or that group “skipped” stage 2, or whatever. Upon examination, I’ve found that they have all been wrong. Your son’s group may be that one in a gazillion anomaly, but I wouldn’t bet on it (Susan Wheelan examined thousands of groups all over the world in business, school, etc, and found the stages held up and were culturally invariant).

    That said, it is considerably more efficient if you have a short-term project to give it to a stage 4 team (if you have one available) than to create a new group to deal with it.

    Comment by Stephen R Balzac — 2010 July 18 @ 18:18 | Reply

    • I don’t doubt that a assigning a new project to a well-functioning team is more efficient than creating a new team.

      But what I see in the theater group my son works with is high-quality work, not the dysfunction that characterizes stage 1 groups. Even if there is a core team that works together well, how to they add on the 60-80% of the team that is new and get them up to speed in such a short time?

      Yes, there is a strong leader (the director), but it isn’t just one charismatic director—they often have 2 or 3 classes going at once in different locations with different directors. There are often two or three teen interns helping out with the class also, acting as stage managers, working lights and sound, and helping with costumes, set, and props. There is a lot of group problem solving in determining blocking, costumes, and props—the director decides, but most of the ideas come from the kids, not the interns or directors.

      It isn’t that all the kids are seasoned professionals—for many this is their first time on stage.

      It isn’t that the directors are producing plays that they have done many times before—there have been performances when the script wasn’t even finished until 3 days before the performance: the person writing the script was delivering new scenes every day. (It was based on a Harry Potter novel, so the kids all knew the story already—the hard part was selecting which of their favorite scenes would be included.) That was not the best performance the group has ever done, as some of the kids did not have enough time to get off book—but it was still much better than the school play in which kids in an elective drama class had a full semester to learn their lines and rehearse.

      One difference is that almost all the kids in the theater group chose to be there—they wanted the play to succeed and were willing to do what it took to achieve that. Even in the elective drama class, a lot of the students didn’t care about the play—they were just avoiding taking a different art class (like sculpting or dance). Occasionally, parents will force a kid into theater camp, but the directors seem to be good at either getting the kid to buy into the performance or putting them into a small part where they don’t damage the performance for the other kids. How do they do that? The casting is usually done on the second day of a 2-week camp—in one day they manage to figure out who will do well in all the major parts. It usually takes me 5 weeks to figure out who my top students are (ok, I only see them 3.5 hours a week, not 6 hours a day, but still …).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 July 18 @ 23:50 | Reply

      • Let’s start by recognizing the implicit assumption in your statement: “But what I see in the theater group my son works with is high-quality work, not the dysfunction that characterizes stage 1 groups.”

        Stage 1 groups are not characterized by dysfunction, although many of them are dysfunctional. On the flip side, many of them are highly functional. A stage 1 group without a designated leader (or with an incompetent leader) is dysfunctional. But that’s not what you’ve described. You’ve described a stage 1 group with an autocratic decision making style (autocratic doesn’t mean that input isn’t encouraged!), a clear leader, and moderately well-defined roles.

        More broadly, virtually all classrooms are stage one groups. There is a designated leader (teacher) and followers (kids). Due to the inherent cultural status roles of the teacher and the kids, the odds are that the group will remain in stage one indefinitely. Remember, although it takes a minimum of 2 months to work through stage one, a group can remain in stage one for years.

        It’s not all that surprising that a skilled director can cast kids with a fair degree of success after only a couple of days. I’ve run various highly complex roleplaying simulations for business and cast people after spending only a few minutes with them and generally hit the target pretty well. It’s a skill; you get better at it with practice. Another point: given that the group is already self-selected to be there, most kids will do well in most roles. It’s just not that hard to be sufficiently right to make it work.

        Also, recognize that much of the reason we see dysfunction in classroom groups is that the kids are turned loose without a designated leader. All successful groups have a leader. All. There are no exceptions. The leader may not be officially recognized, but there is a leader. Highly functional groups may appear to be leaderless, but that’s only because the team has learned to absorb many of the obvious trappings of leadership but the leader is still there in the background. One mistake many kids (even college kids) make is trying to run their nascent group as a democracy. This doesn’t work, a fact that is very upsetting to Americans due to our cultural beliefs. In fact, a democratic team requires a great deal of effort to achieve. You can’t start that way.

        I strongly encourage you to read Susan Wheelan’s book, “Group Processes: A Developmental Perspective,” or some of Ed Schein’s (e.g. “Organizational Culture and Leadership”) or even mine (“The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development”).

        Comment by Stephen R Balzac — 2010 July 19 @ 08:04 | Reply

  5. I would suggest looking at the Boy Scouts model. A big goal of Scouts is for boys to learn to lead themselves. Scout leaders are really there just to steer away from the cliff when absolutely necessary. The boys all want to be there and all have a vested interest in a given camping venture going well, so there is no need for the artifice of grades. Adult leaders provide some guidance, and some leadership training is available, but really, the boys learn to lead and to follow by doing it – in small groups, with examples to follow. My son, for example, had no real desire to be a senior patrol leader, but he was needed. So he stepped up to the plate, and learned. He did a good job and the younger scouts saw how he learned. In a couple of years, they will do the same thing.

    Comment by sharon stanfill — 2010 July 20 @ 09:50 | Reply

    • My experience with Boy Scouts (over 40 years ago) was not so positive. I enjoyed the camping, but the bullying was worse than at school. I saw no evidence that Boy Scouts had any training in leadership, and only a few group activities really worked.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 July 20 @ 09:56 | Reply

  6. The considerable decentralization and volunteerism of the Scouts is both an asset and a liability. A really good troop is wonderful. My son’s is one. One of the scout leaders is something of a local legend, having been in Scouts for over 50 years and his mere presence has a lot to do with the success of the troop. There are now various methods of training Scouts in leadership – there are short seminars, booklets, week long leadership camps and such. But most of the success comes from good adult leaders who do just enough. Good troops tend to self-perpetuate and self-regulate – the bullies don’t get into the positions of power and the good kids do. Bad troops are a problem and there certainly are some.
    I think what is important about the Scout model is that kids, starting at a fairly early age, are encouraged to try to organize and lead themselves. It is expected that there will be failures. There have been some..um..interesting meals served, for example. But the kids will learn to lead and follow.
    I think part of the problem is that kids rarely get the chance to organize themselves now. In the old days (yes..I’m sounding like an old coot here..) there were far fewer organized activities. In my neighborhood, the crowd of kids from age five to fifteen swarmed about in the summer, finding our own way. We played games that we modified, using the equipment, space and players that we had. We didn’t get to be very skilled at kickball, for example, but we learned about organizing. Now, kids have very little time without adults teaching them and that makes for a lack of opportunities to lead and to follow.

    Comment by sharon stanfill — 2010 July 20 @ 10:31 | Reply

  7. [...] with are nowhere near as good at it. I’ve commented before about the difficulty of doing group work in school, with the observation that group work is only effective if the work genuinely requires a group [...]

    Pingback by Summer Theater Camps « Gas station without pumps — 2010 August 16 @ 11:13 | Reply

  8. [...] Group work July 2010 13 comments, 343 views, and 1 Like on WordPress.com. I have been bothered by the “everyone must work in groups” meme that is taking over education, even though 40% of the classes I teach are group-work classes. Group work is only appropriate when the projects are big enough to actually require groups: for projects small enough to be done more efficiently by individuals, requiring groups actually has negative educational consequences. [...]

    Pingback by 2010 in review « Gas station without pumps — 2011 January 2 @ 12:52 | Reply

  9. [...] group work primary.  I’ve previously posted on my objections to group work in low-level courses, and computer science class projects are almost always better done by individuals than by groups, [...]

    Pingback by Your school can pilot the new AP CS Principles course « Gas station without pumps — 2011 March 5 @ 09:42 | Reply

  10. [...] as a one-person effort, not as a huge team.  I’ve moaned on this blog before about the overuse and misuse of group work in K–12 education, and it saddens me to see pedagogical styles enshrined as curricular [...]

    Pingback by K–12 Computer Science standards « Gas station without pumps — 2011 April 29 @ 20:47 | Reply

  11. [...] Group work [...]

    Pingback by Blogoversary « Gas station without pumps — 2011 June 5 @ 10:51 | Reply

  12. [...] difficulties, accomplishing less and less as the group gets bigger. I’ve talked about group projects before—group sizes that are optimal for science-fair-sized projects are from one to three [...]

    Pingback by Rethinking Science Fairs (7 mostly bad ideas from John Spencer) « Gas station without pumps — 2011 June 20 @ 11:50 | Reply

  13. [...] “group” projects and students have learned that lesson very thoroughly. (See my blog post about group work.) A real group project, one big enough and with tight enough time constraints that one person [...]

    Pingback by Advice on teaching senior design classes « Gas station without pumps — 2011 August 2 @ 12:20 | Reply

  14. Thanks for this post. I believe that groups can be helpful, but I appreciate your thoughtful consideration of the issues involved. One thing I did years ago, when I insisted students work on a tough problem together, was to have them do individual write-ups for their grade. They had to explain how they worked together, but each person had some individual control over their individual grade.

    GSWP, have you read Boaler’s book (What’s Math Got to do With it?)? I think your in-depth reaction to it would be very helpful for me. Also, Uri Treisman’s work seems to have clear evidence of the value of working together. I have a hunch that you and I lean in different directions on this in part due to our differences in perspective. But you have a wealth of experience that I can learn from.

    Comment by Sue VanHattum — 2011 August 3 @ 08:12 | Reply

  15. Only lazy, weak, terrible teachers depend on group work. As a high school teacher, I tell my students that I am not a fan of group work and tell them the truth that group work has no real advantages in the real world and that it is just a lie. I tell them that when it comes to projects, one can work alone, with a partner or in a group if they choose but I will not force you to do any of it.

    Real teachers, good teachers, would never do what you try to do. Group work doesn’t work and never will. It has no place in college.

    Comment by B. Sanders — 2011 September 9 @ 12:18 | Reply

    • While I’m no fan of group work in schools, I disagree with your claim that “group work has no real advantages in the real world”. There are many tasks that are too big for one person to do, and so must be done by a group. There is substantial overhead in creating and organizing groups, though, so any task that can be done by one person is usually better done by that person. The problem with school projects is that they are generally of a size that one person is the optimal group size.

      Some of the senior design projects at the University really are big enough and complex enough to justify having multiple engineering students on the project.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 September 9 @ 12:44 | Reply

  16. “My definition of insanity is an inability to work as part of a group.” — Susan Wheelan, psychologist and former professor of psychology at Temple University. Has investigated group work and teams in over 50 countries.

    “Only Americans believe that the individual is always superior to the team.” — Ed Schein, social psychologist and professor emeritus, MIT Sloan School of Management.

    In fact, there is practically no job you can have that doesn’t involve some amount of group work. Want to write software? Unless you are sitting in a basement writing iPhone software, software is written by teams.

    Teaching? Standing in front of a classroom is a form of group work.

    Acting? You have to work with other actors.

    Sales? Your interactions with the prospective client are a form of group work.

    Sports? Many sports require you work on team; even participants in individual sports, such as fencing, do better on a team.

    The problem with group work in schools is not that it’s done, it’s that it is done badly. Most people, and most teachers, do not understand group dynamics. Also most CEOs, most managers, and most entrepreneurs. As a result, group work, as it is currently taught, teaches all the wrong lessons. See some of my earlier posts in this thread for more on that.

    I’m teaching a college course on group dynamics this fall. You can bet it has a lot of group work. Also a great deal of analysis of the process of group work.

    I started my career in computer science and worked for a number of startup companies. Many of them failed, mostly because the employees were unable to work together in groups. Now, I’m a consultant and psychology professor. The companies I speak to are mostly having trouble with, that’s right, group work. Their teams are not functional.

    If you want to learn more about group work, you could check out Susan Wheelan’s “Group Processes: A Developmental Perspective,” Ed Schein’s classic, “Organizational Culture and Leadership,” or his most recent book, “Helping,” or even my own contribution, “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development.”

    -Steve Balzac
    http://www.7stepsahead.com

    Comment by Stephen Balzac (@BusinessSensei) — 2011 September 9 @ 13:33 | Reply

    • I’ve taught some group dynamics (as part of the senior design course) using the text Teamwork and Project Management, 3rd edition by Karl A. Smith and P.K. Imbrie. I’m not real fond of the book, which is little more than lists borrowed from other sources, but it serves as a starting point for students to find relevant material, if it is treated more as an annotated bibliography than as a text.

      One key to making a group work that is often overlooked in the group dynamics books and courses is having a task that is more suitable to group work than to individual work. Attempts to do “group dynamics” on tasks that are really better done by one person result in highly dysfunctional groups. Artificially subdividing tasks to increase communication (as is often suggested for high-school science labs, for example) just frustrates everyone.

      A smooth software development experience involves a small amount of group work to partition the problem, a lot of individual work on the components, and occasional group work to resolve problems that arise for errors or incomplete specification of the initial partition. Software development that involves a lot of group work is doomed to slow, inefficient work.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 September 9 @ 14:48 | Reply

  17. “One key to making a group work that is often overlooked in the group dynamics books and courses is having a task that is more suitable to group work than to individual work. Attempts to do “group dynamics” on tasks that are really better done by one person result in highly dysfunctional groups”

    That is quite true. For a project to make sense as a group project it must not be something unitary. It needs to be big enough, and divisible enough, to make sense as a group project.

    “A smooth software development experience involves a small amount of group work to partition the problem, a lot of individual work on the components, and occasional group work to resolve problems that arise for errors or incomplete specification of the initial partition. Software development that involves a lot of group work is doomed to slow, inefficient work.”

    I completely agree that this was true of many software projects I did in academia. MIT worked very hard to minimize projects that broke up easily or allowed people to work by themselves too much because they wanted us to learn to work together, but that’s a difficult task in a semester long course; projects have to be designed to break up with some level of natural decomposition. However, I spent 20 years developing software at companies from IBM to tiny startups. At no time did this theoretical model hold up in the real world (with the one exception being my thesis work at IBM Watson, but that was an individual project from the beginning). If nothing else, you have a constant interaction between developers, QA, marketing, and sales causing constant changes and adjustments to the product. Software developers need to be able to bounce ideas off one another, brainstorm, and help each other. Those teams that master that produce higher quality software and produce it much faster than those that don’t. Frankly, I see that attitude that software developers don’t need to develop strong team dynamics destroy companies.

    Furthermore, many businesses are moving to a paired programming model or a scrum model, both of which require much higher levels of team functioning in order to work effectively. Otherwise, what you get is a team that sits around arguing all the time and gets nothing done (rather amusingly, I was speaking at MIT on organizational development earlier this year and I posed the question, “What do you call a group of people with no leader, who can’t agree on goals, and who resist any attempt to get them moving?” Someone in the room yelled out, “A scrum team!”).

    Comment by Stephen Balzac (@BusinessSensei) — 2011 September 9 @ 15:27 | Reply

  18. By the way, even if you disagree with me about the difference between academic and professional software development, the process of breaking up a project and agreeing what the pieces should be works differently at different levels of team development. At low levels, people are less likely to ask questions or push back, causing the group to accept the first decomposition that comes to mind and not explore alternatives. Or, the group is likely to argue to vehemently that the break down is more about pacifying factions than good problem solving. Low level groups universally exhibit less effective decision making skills than groups that have reached higher stages of development. Group dynamics are that powerful.

    In every area that’s been studied (manufacturing, medicine, military, teaching, therapy groups, acting, and yes, software, to name a few) high performance teams are anywhere from 10-100 times more effective than stage 1 or 2 groups. If you want the data, read Susan Wheelan’s papers and Schein’s work (there are more, those are the two I’m most familiar with).

    Comment by Stephen Balzac (@BusinessSensei) — 2011 September 9 @ 15:43 | Reply

  19. [...] have protested in this blog before about the excessive use of inappropriate group work in schools, though recognizing that there are projects that are big enough or varied enough that groups are [...]

    Pingback by Individual work in collaborations « Gas station without pumps — 2012 January 15 @ 12:09 | Reply

  20. [...] have protested in this blog before about the excessive use of inappropriate group work in schools, though recognizing that there are projects that are big enough or varied enough that groups are [...]

    Pingback by Individual work in collaborations « Gas station without pumps — 2012 January 15 @ 12:09 | Reply

  21. [...] Group work (gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com) [...]

    Pingback by Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work : The New Yorker « Gas station without pumps — 2012 February 21 @ 22:36 | Reply

  22. [...] I think that the lack of group projects in many CS courses is not so much tied to Dewar’s idea “a perhaps regrettable staple of the educational process is the need to assess a student’s progress through a grade, and a team project makes this difficult” as it is to the problem of scale—a group project is only reasonable when the project is too big to be done more efficiently by a single person.  Creating and managing such big projects in lower-level classes would be a major undertaking, particularly in the short time frame of a quarter or semester, when a lot of things other than group dynamics need to be learned. Pasting a group structure onto tiny project would make things worse, not better, in terms of training students to be effective in groups (see Group work). [...]

    Pingback by Embedded programming gap « Gas station without pumps — 2012 May 17 @ 20:30 | Reply

  23. [...] Group work [...]

    Pingback by Second Blogoversary « Gas station without pumps — 2012 June 2 @ 18:15 | Reply

  24. [...] are expecting far more than 12 students, we will have to pair students for the lab.  But I have an aversion to forced group work on tasks that are more easily done by one person.  I want to be sure that the pairs are not just [...]

    Pingback by SBG and partner work in circuits class « Gas station without pumps — 2012 October 3 @ 22:42 | Reply

  25. [...] kids together to do projects that could more efficiently be done individually. (See, for example, Group work)  I’m not opposed to group work that is genuine (for example, in theater, sports, or [...]

    Pingback by More on group work « Gas station without pumps — 2012 October 29 @ 18:23 | Reply


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