Students Reflect on Group Work

When I posted my two entries on group work some time ago, I had no idea that this issue would follow me around for such a long time. It seems that wherever I turn, someone or something reminds me of advantages or disadvantages of group work. I’m not complaining – these are excellent opportunities for further reflection.

A couple of days ago, for example, I received a memo issued by administration at my school in order to “make sure that everyone is on the same page” and ensure that there is consistency on some key curriculum and administrative matters. The memo addresses study hall, homework, student absenteeism, and group work. In short, some pretty mundane and uninspiring issues. The section on group work, however, caught my attention:

Please remember to assign and vary the partners in group work. Through speaking with parents and children, we have found that partner and group work is a very sensitive issue. To use their words, some students feel that they are “left out,” “stuck with,” or “looked past” during group work. Many of these kids have other social stresses to deal with. Can we all please make every effort to alleviate this stress during class time?

Wait. There’s more. Last week, I received an e-mail from Jessica, my former student. She graduated in June and is now attending high school. Jessica was one of the participants in my doctoral research study. She found this blog a couple of months ago and has been visiting it regularly. In her e-mail, she offered her own response to my recent entry on groups:

Hey Mr. G!

[...] I am reading Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden right now. GREAT book, by the way.

I was thinking, yesterday, about what you wrote on Sunday about groups in class. Right now, I am working on a project with three of my classmates in English. we are reading a short story, analyzing it and making a presentation to the class about that the themes are and things like that. I have found so far, that the kids I am working with are, to be frank, taking over, but total slackers, if that makes sense. The three of them tell each other what to do and how to do it, but none of them want to take charge and do the work – they just want to tell people what to do. So yesterday, I said to them that they should take some responsibility and do some work themselves and not end up dumping it all on me. I got, to my surprise, a very understanding answer. They agreed that it was unfair to argue with each other and end up giving me the work, and that they will go home this weekend and finish their different parts of the presentation. This is exactly what you said in They Begin To Build Bridges. In some cases, there are kids who are dominant, but not necessarily more competent than the others who take control and demand that they have it their way. Other times, it’s the kids who are dominant AND more competent than the others who messes it up for the whole group. It ends up being that one person who does the project and the others get credit for it, but I know teacher;s aren’t stupid. You even said yourself last year that you can tell when it’s just one person’s work.

[...]

Jessica

In addition, Eric MacKnight e-mailed me some time ago to tell me that he had discussed my entry on group work with his students and encouraged them to respond. I read all their entries and was impressed by how well they articulated their thoughts. Their responses show a wide range of opinions. Some argue that group work has a very positive impact on all group members. Others contend that working in groups is alienating and ineffective.

All of these texts once again led me to a realization that I prefer communities where everyone can contribute while retaining their own sense of individuality and independence. In such communities or networks, individual learners can still link up if they choose to and can achieve the goal of what Gordon Wells and Mari Haneda (.pdf) call “purposefully knowing together.”

6 Responses to Students Reflect on Group Work

  1. "Phil" November 23, 2006 at 9:33 pm #

    Three day road really is a great book, might even be a good one for the grade 8′s to read?
    You should check it out.
    It’s delicious.

    Wouldn’t you say that, in a way, the blogging community is just one large group? I think that’s really the only way to do groups in a language class, because it’s all about your own voice, rather than trying to take three voices and successfully mesh them together. I didn’t think I missed out on anything during language last year, we got enough group work in every other class.

  2. leighblackall November 25, 2006 at 4:37 am #

    Hi Konrad,

    I think you are really bringing clarity to that often confusing debate we all had over here in NZ.

    The one thing that keeps sticking out for me though, and that I rarely if ever read any reflection on from North America, is cultural differences. Is “the having your own voice” idea just another form of individualism. And isn’t individualism a thing that a minority of the world with a certain cultural heritage, actually value?

    There is a BBC film, a documentary about people in North Korea. Apparently it was the result of the first and only western TV crew to film in North Korea – and it represents the antithesis to individualism. It is called, A State of Mind – http://www.astateofmind.co.uk/

    I’m pointing to a very extreme and probably unhelpful example for this point I’m trying to tease out. I hope you can perceive all the subtleties in between. Is “the voice” in fact individualism? is individualism unquestionably a positive thing? is networked individualism just another medium of expression that empowers a minority of the world’s people? And does it really empower individuals?

    I dunno… cultural differences… do you think it is a relevant issue here?

  3. Konrad Glogowski November 26, 2006 at 11:21 pm #

    Hi Leigh,

    Wow … that really is an extreme example, but I see your point. No, I do not equate the development of individual student voices with individualism. Just because they are becoming confident and capable as writers does not mean that they become isolated in the cocoon of their own existence. In fact, I find that it is the students’ growing sense of confidence in their own skills that precipitates an important shift in their approach to learning, writing, and – surprisingly perhaps – working within a community. As their sense of ownership and their confidence grow, they become more and more interested in sharing their views by posting comments on other blogs, for example.

    Wikipedia defines individualism as follows:

    “a term used to describe a moral, political, or social outlook that stresses human independence and the importance of individual self-reliance and liberty. Individualists promote the unrestricted exercise of individual goals and desires. They oppose most external interference with an individual’s choices – whether by society, the state, or any other group or institution.”

    There is very little individualism in what I’m witnessing in my classroom which, as you know, revolves around a blogging community. While independence and the freedom to explore ideas are of primary importance, the students do not see themselves as separate or independent from their peers. They see their participation in the community, in the classroom, as an integral part of their work. In other words, they don’t see what the community does or what their classmates do, as something that can potentially threaten their own ideas and their own work.

    I wouldn’t say that individualism is a positive thing. It seems to me that in a classroom context it would lead students to underestimate the importance of the community around them and, in fact, lead them to avoid being associated with it.

    I think my students are empowered not only because they can see their own progress as writers and thinkers, not only because they begin to take ownership of their work, but also because they have a community around them which can validate those skills. In other words, they realize that they can enter the community as contributors only if they first acquire or develop the skills that will make it possible for them to participate in discussions, post intelligent comments, and purposefully think together.

    I’m not sure if this answers your questions but I want you to know that you’ve given me a lot to think about. The issue of community/collectivism and independence/individualism is an important one in learning. I’ve been so embedded in my study and my classroom that I don’t always look at what’s happening objectively. Thanks for forcing me to address these distinctions (I will keep thinking about them).

  4. leighblackall November 27, 2006 at 1:33 am #

    Hey Konrad, nice one mate! I’m reassured that it is not individualism we are nurturing here.. but am still unsure that we are or even need to be thinking about cultural differences, or suitability of these communication methods in different cultural contexts. Its another one of those ethical concerns that we could get all lost in, and needlessly at that.

  5. Liz Ditz January 1, 2007 at 10:25 am #

    A bit of a subject hijack here, but I just wanted to say: Happy New Year to you and yours. I wish you all the best for 2007.

  6. Charles January 3, 2007 at 2:32 pm #

    Kathy Sierra (Creating Passionate Users) just posted an interesting article on the differences between Collective Intelligence and the Dumbness of Crowds, which applies to the discussion on group work. That is, if we have group work, the groups should be designed as networks so that they preserve, as Sierra says, “the sharp edges, gaps, and differences in individual knowledge that make the wisdom of crowds work.”

Leave a Reply