To Ungroup a Class

Colin McCahon As a student, I have always detested group work. So, when I read a recent comment posted by Charles who suggested that my entry On Commenting and Readerly Voice does not explore the dynamics of team work, I thought carefully about his views. Charles helped me realize that, according to my entry, what takes place in my classroom seems to focus exclusively on developing individual voices. Charles admits that he has not made up his mind about the importance of group work vs. individual work but he puts forth a suggestion that it might be important to also focus on groups of students because at some point in the future our students will find themselves in real-life environments where they will need to work collaboratively in teams.

I’ve been thinking about this comment for weeks, ever since Charles first posted it. It forced me to think carefully and critically about my focus on helping students develop strong and confident individual voices. I realized that I do privilege the development of individual writerly and inquiring voices over group work. “Why is that?” I began to wonder. “Why do I insist on individual voices? My blog does not contain a single entry that describes group work or my attempts to get my students to work collaboratively in teams.”

I need to stress here that Charles does not in any way suggest that my approach is wrong or that group work needs to be an integral part of the curriculum. He merely reflects on a complete lack of any references to group work in my class. What Charles articulated in his comment is what I hear quite often at my school and in discussions with other educators. There seems to be a very strong tendency in elementary and secondary education to focus on group work. Teachers are expected to give their students opportunities to work in groups. Those who do not (I’m speaking from experience) are often seen as authoritarian and overzealous about the transmission model of education.

I disagree with that position. I am passionate about allowing learners in my classroom to enter a learner-centric environment where they can escape some of the institutional constraints that come with learning in a building called “school.” I want them to become aware of their own voices and their own strengths as learners. I want them to move beyond the limiting environment of the four walls where they are often expected to sit quietly and listen. I don’t like group work because when students work in groups many of them also sit quietly and listen. Consequently, helping young learners develop ownership is something I am very passionate about because I have learned that when young learners work in groups there develops, inevitably, one dominant voice. There is always one student, two at most, who are outspoken and find it easy to share their thoughts and ideas, regardless of how inane they really are. Many students find it difficult to share their thoughts when confronted with such confidence. They often begin to question the very validity of their own thoughts and, at least at the Intermediate level, often choose not to contribute or contribute ideas they know will be accepted by the group. The one dominant voice that emerges stifles the rest.

This one dominant voice never represents the contributions of all group members. It often represents their acquiescence but not their views and ideas. The reason I don’t devote as much time to group work as most of my colleagues is because I don’t think my students can function well as a group and work collaboratively if, as individuals, they have not had any opportunities to develop their voices, to risk speaking out, to share, explain, and develop their opinions. The individual voice needs to develop first. It needs to be given opportunities to grow and flourish. It is only after learning who I am as a writer and learner that I can successfully and meaningfully contribute to a group.

Needless to say, I agree with Stephen’s view on groups and networks. What the blogging community helped my students create is a network, a truly diverse uncoordinated collection of student blogs and ideas. As a network of independent blogger-researchers, my students felt autonomous and free. The research projects that they worked on were open – designed to be read or ignored by all nodes within our class network.

Putting my students into groups would have led many of them to acquiesce to the presence of a louder or more confident peer. Instead, given the open and liberatory nature of their work, conversations soon emerged. This is not to say that conversations cannot develop in groups. Of course, they can. But conversations that originate inside a group tend to be expressed in one totalizing voice. Groups tend to focus on compromises, on reducing all individual voices to commonalities that all members can agree on and that all members see as somehow representative of their individual voices. That is precisely why teachers ask students in groups to report on their progress by choosing one student to act as a speaker – a representative of the group. We never ask about what every single participant had to say. Instead, we ask what the group, as a whole, came up with. We reduce its rich constituent parts to one voice.

When my students researched current human rights abuses, they created connections in a completely voluntary fashion. No one ever told them to comment on the work of their peers or link to it. They did it because they found validity in those connections. They did it because connecting with other learners simply made sense. While every student who engaged more productively than his or her peers emerged as a locus of information and conversation, there were no opportunities to take over and dominate the class blogosphere. Having established themselves as researchers, as individuals with ideas and personal stories and voices, the students connected and contributed to each other’s knowledge but never combined into groups where some views could take precedence over others.

Perhaps I am being irresponsible when I reduce opportunities for group work in my grade eight class. Perhaps young people do need to learn what it means to be a member in a group. It seems to me, however, that helping them learn how to ungroup, how to function successfully as independent, creative, and confident agents is far more important. Learning to make and contribute to valuable connections, learning to build bridges seems more valuable.


The image at the top of this post is a triptych by Colin McCahon entitled “On Building Bridges.” I saw his work last week while visiting the Auckland Art Gallery during the FLNW Unconference.

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10 Responses to To Ungroup a Class

  1. Terry Dolson October 3, 2006 at 4:19 pm #

    There is much wisdom in encouraging individuals to develop themselves. And I believe we have done a disservice by too often just throwing students into groups and assuming that any interaction is good. (Nothing produces groans from my students like the announcement of a “group project!”) BUT: I do believe in the importance of learning to have a voice in a group–not so much for work life in the future but for Democracy now. We don’t know how to converse or to listen. Quiet people don’t learn the importance of sharing their wisdom because it is true–these days the loudest one wins. This is exactly why we should be teaching students how to have conversations, especially difficult conversations. I’ve been very influenced by Ken Bruffee and his concept of “The Conversation of Mankind.” The closest I have come to achieving this in my class came through extensive use of electronic tools for social networking AND collaborative quizzes where they had to listen to each other and evaluate the answer, not the decibel of the voice. When we finally did a group project at the end of the semester, the results were amazing, because they were well prepared to interact and knew themselves and one another. Individual, group. It is not either/or; it is both/and.

  2. Wendy October 3, 2006 at 8:01 pm #

    Hi Konrad,

    I too am thinking about voice as it is reflected in an educational weblog. I am working with online graduate students and much of their course work is collaborative. While some of them appreciate the opportunity to express their own voices, even those that don’t seem to find their voice over a semester as they work through ideas of interest to them. In collaborative discussion, as you point out, consensus is the goal. I’m coming to think both are necessary.


  3. Ian Grove-Stephensen October 4, 2006 at 3:17 am #

    Konrad, are you missing something by focusing on the written output of group work? If you listen to the aural process, I think you will find that a larger proportion of the students are actively involved than you at first thought. For example, there are those who contribute few ideas of their own, but who are highly skilled at facilitating the gestation of ideas in others.

    It would be interesting to see if these are the same students who leave the most facilitative comments on other students’ blogs. If the correlation is strong, might you cite that as evidence that in fact all blogging is groupwork anyway?

  4. Bee October 4, 2006 at 1:40 pm #

    Individual voices, knowing how to collaborate and participate in group work and being able to network are all different ways of interacting in society so it is important for educators to expose learners to all these different forms of relating to people f2f and online and which tools, moderation and strategies help develop listening, observation, talking and reflection.

  5. Lisa Rosa October 4, 2006 at 4:43 pm #

    I agree with you when you say, that groupwork make only sense if multivoiceness does not disappeare into one pseudo-representative voice, which is mostly the loudest voice. (That is what I call ‘social darwinism’ and is what happens, when you leave the group alone to work for a teacher’s subject. But with the help of a teacher students can overcome this.) And I agree, that first everyone has to learn to formulate his/her own wishes and meaning. But from the very beginning of everyone’s live – I think – to build one’s own expression is a communicative act – a social act, and it can also very early be acting in a group. We have to help emerging the individual voices in communication, that is also to listen to other voices (and of course not only that one of a teacher). You can help to develop the competencies of communication – to emerge student’s individual voice and the student’s listening to other voices – in groups, when you develop at the same time the rules of communication within the groups. Than the topic to learn is initially the compentency of communication before the objects of school subjects. On the other hand – you can’t do any communication without an object you communicate about. But there are many instruments to deal with this problem in education. The best way I found, when students learn to work in groups is, when they want to plan a project of their own – an activity which makes their owns sense and which has not much to do with school. Video games playing in communities is for example such an medium, where students learn to communicate and to act in groups in a demcratic way with roules they constructed of their own.
    Sorry for my very bad english!

  6. Konrad Glogowski October 4, 2006 at 8:45 pm #

    Thank you Terry, Wendy, Ian, Bee, and Lisa for your thoughtful comments. You’ve inspired me to keep thinking about this issue – I’ve decided that the best way to address your suggestions and ideas is to try to articulate my thoughts fully in another entry. Coming soon!

  7. Lisa October 6, 2006 at 12:36 am #

    Such interesting timing! My students, who are training to be online facilitators, were just discussing this very issue. One point came up in their dialogue that I thought would be pertinent for you - collaboration and group work are not synonymous.
    Collaborate means to join together in an intellectual endeavor - think of the pairings of musicians and musical styles who\'ve collaborated to create something new in jam sessions that later became whole new genres - from rock (blues and jazz) to fusion, hip-hop, and even grunge. I don\'t think anyone would call that \"group work\" or suggest a loss of autonomy in those artists who collaborated - but they certainly shared their ideas, each incorporating what the liked from the other, learning from and teaching each other (can we say critical thinking??) - collaboration is constructivist in principle - the learning is created.

    Group work is an educational structure designed to produce a predetermined end product. It is \"cooperative learning\" with roles defined by the instructor for each participant in the group. It is not \"wrong\", it is just different from collaboration.

    Here is where I directed my students - I thought Ted Panitz summed it up rather well.

    Until your next entry!

  8. Teemu October 18, 2006 at 2:20 am #

    You wrote: …”No one ever told them to comment on the work of their peers or link to it. They did it because they found validity in those connections. They did it because connecting with other learners simply made sense”…

    I think the key word in here is the “peer”. The fact of your students knowing each other – each other context, background, strengths and weaknesses as learners – makes them a group. I think that in your case there is no need to have any “group work activities”, as your whole way of teaching is based on guiding your pupils to social construction of reality in the networked group of your pupils. I am pretty sure that in your classroom there are also openly discussed goals, norms and roles. This makes it different from an open network. Your students are not only nodes in a network, but a group – a very special group – a networked group?

  9. Franki October 21, 2006 at 10:06 am #

    I definitely agree that kids need to be suported in finding their own voice in the world. But I also think it is beneficial for our students to know that when you put your thinking together, ideas grow. When I think about groupwork, one goal is to help students see how thinking and ideas can grow and change when we pull together. I think of Thomas Edison’s workshop when inventing the light bulb, think tank type meetings where decisions are made and solutions are pondered. I think our kids need experience with both–building their individual voices as well as finding the power in building ideas in a think tank type group. I definitely don’t think groupwork without the expectation that thinking will change and grow because of the group experience.

  10. Marco Polo October 31, 2006 at 9:27 am #

    Thanks for raising the controversial opinion against groups. It’s so easy to get into group-think on this and assume that because Vygotsky wrote that learning is a social activity, groupwork must be A Good Thing.
    Thanks also for the artwork: (virtual) travel can, and in this case does, broaden the mind. Much appreciated.

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