“Two hands are better than one.”
“Many hands make light work.”
“People in the career world work in groups, so students need to as well.”
We’ve all heard these lines and others like them many times before, and of course there is truth to them. Classrooms need to be a more collaborative setting so students learn important skills that they will use in an ever-increasing collaborative world. We get it, kids need to do more group work.
But this doesn’t negate the fact that having students work in groups very often can be likened to getting a root canal or using an alarm clock everyday that wakes you up with chorus of “Let it Go.”
Here are 5 things every teacher can relate to when doing group projects (And a little help making these things happen less).
There’s always that one student who lights up when he finds out about a group project. He/she simply has to find their way into a group with a couple “A students,” make it clear that he/she should not be trusted with the most difficult tasks, and can then throw on their headphones for the remainder of the project. The freeloader rides on the coattails of others, and is the second-most least likely person to be selected to be in a group.
The most least likely person to be selected for a group is the know-it-all, the student who makes it clear that they know what’s best and micromanages every aspect of the project. The know-it-all attracts the freeloader at first because of the promise of that person doing all the work. However the sentiment changes quickly when the know-it-all drives everyone crazy with their insane demands and Devil Wears Prada-power moves. If the know-it-all can be taught to collaborate, they are best group members imaginable. But if not, get ready for parent phone calls about kids going home crying because of your class.
"Can We Pick Our Own Groups?
Teacher: “Alright everyone, we are going to do a group project. Before we get star- (student raises hand) Yes, do you have a question?”
Student: “Can we pick our groups?”
Teacher: “No, I’m selecting groups.”
Teacher: Well, I want you all to work with new people and make new friends.
Teacher: Well, research shows that there’s a lot of value to teacher selectivity when it comes to group formation and collaboration activities?
Student: But why?
Teacher: Because I need to make sure the more talkative kids and the quieter ones are spread out.
Student: But why? Me and my friends work really good together.
Teacher: Because I’m the boss and I said so.
1 Project = 4 Projects
The purpose of group work is for kids to learn to collaborate and use their collective knowledge and skills to solve a problem and complete a task. However, it often turns into students divvying up tasks with each other and then combining them for the final presentation. Essentially, if students were to create a slideshow, each kid creates a slide and puts it into one presentation. The final product ends up being 4 slides with 4 different fonts, 4 levels of quality, and basically 4 different assignments turned in at the same time. You taught them how to collaborate. You told them to collaborate. They did not collaborate.
Kids Who Do Nothing
Being intentional when selecting groups is key. You don’t want too many friends, know-it-alls, freeloaders, enemies, etc. in one group. But every now and then you mess up, and make a group made up entirely of unmotivated students. When some groups are developing cures for cancer, others are taping spaghetti to paper plates the night before the project is due. The result is unfinished projects, your hair getting ripped out, and you making a personal vow to never do a group project again.
Of course there are ways to address all of these issues. From having students write group contracts, having “collaboration grades” attached to assignments, teaching and modeling collaboration before even assigning it, or being very selective when creating groups, group work can be successful in the classroom.
But sometimes it's nice to feel solidarity and call out the parts of the job that challenge us. If you have come to loathe group projects, take heart in knowing you are not alone in that. Teaching and executing collaboration can be difficult, and rarely is a seamless process.
In my book, I share some strategies that have absolutely changed the way I see group projects in my class. Practices that make collaboration a beautiful, necessary part of the story unfolding in your classroom.