The Group Work Problem

Work in small groups has become a core teaching strategy over the last few decades, and for good reason. There is incredible power and potential in bringing together different people with diverse strengths and experiences and blending them into one team, focused on a single goal.  This is how problems are solved, championships are won, new products are created and how students truly grow!  

The problem is that when groups don't work they often create failure, frustration, anger and stress.  This is true for anyone, whether they are in school, at home, or at work.  Dysfunction is the dark shadow hanging over any group endeavor.  As teachers we need to make group dynamics a top priority, not only through our own actions and interventions, but as a skill we provide to our students. 

The script below is an attempt to bring this issue into focus.  It is a concrete example of a group struggling with many of the same issues that all of us have struggled with when placed in a group.  For this reason it can be an effective starting point for a wider discussion about group dysfunction.  

The following are descriptions of an event that happened in a middle school class a few years ago.  A group was having a hard time working together and the teacher asked each student separately to explain what was going on.  Here is what they had to say:

Student 1:  "Debbie"

"Mr. Jones, Tom is not contributing to the group at all.  We have asked him to do things and he totally refuses!  It is really frustrating because the rest of the group really want a good grade on this assignment, so we have been working really hard, but he doesn't care!  I think it is unfair that he should get the same group grade as the rest of us when he hasn't done anything!"

Student 2:  "Tom"

"How am I supposed to do anything when 'Miss Perfect' won't let me?  Its like she won't let my 'inferior' work get in the way of her precious A+.  I swear, every time I try to do something its like, 'Oh. No, that part is too important, let so and so do that, you'll screw it up...'  If she doesn't want me to do anything, than why should I?"

Student 3:  "Lisa"

"I think Tom is being a total jerk.  Debbie told him to do stuff, he just won't do it!  He also started calling her bad names and stuff!  I think he should be taken off the group.  I mean, Deb and I are really working hard and Steve is at least trying to do things.  Tom just doesn't care."

Student 4:  "Steve"

"Tom's OK.  I mean we're not good friends or anything, but we get along.  I really want to get a good grade on this project, ya know, like, grades are important to me, and Debbie really knows how to get good grades, so I let her, ya know, take the lead.  I don't think Tom likes that.  I like to draw and stuff, so I've been doing some of the illustrations for the project.  Tom and the girls fight a lot, but I just try to stay out of it and do my work, so I can get a good grade."

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It is not surprising that nearly every student presented with this script reported that they have been part of a group like this one.   The shocking thing is that most adults who have read it report similarities between this group and their own work environments!  The irony is that at a time when teachers should be teaching students how to avoid falling into this sort of dysfunction, it is this very problem that most teachers point to as the reason they avoid assigning long term group projects to begin with.  Instead of avoidance, lets deal with these issues head on.

Assigning blame

It is normal in situations like this one to want to assign blame.  This might seem easy because, let's face it, there is a lot of blame to go around.  However, whom one blames in these situations can do more to reveal the bias of the person doing the blaming than provide any insight into what is really going on.  Debbie, for example, is clearly blaming Tom, because she thinks he is lazy.  Tom will blame Debbie because she is a bossy know-it-all, Lisa will defend Debbie by accusing Tom of being mean, and Steve will try to avoid the question all together.  As outside observers, our guts will tell us to side with one person or another.  But we need to be careful, because these situations bring us right back to when we were in groups similar to this one, and so our guts will tell us to side with the student who is most like us.  Therefore, in the end, most teachers will blame Tom, because most teachers were "Debbies" when they were in school. (She is also responsible, hard working and has earned the teacher's trust.)  While Tom, by the time he gets to Middle School, has given up on trying to impress and completely expects that his perspective will not be valued.

It is best to avoid blame all together.  Not just in situations like this, but as teachers in general.  The path of blame leads to resentment and frustration for both the teacher and the student.  Lisa's solution, getting rid of Tom, is not a solution at all.  It avoids the problem at hand and sends the exact wrong message to everyone in the group.  Tom learns that he was right, Debbie does think he is useless, and now what is worse, he now knows that the teacher agrees with her.  Debbie learned that her learning is more important than Tom's, and will continue to define her self worth on class rank and grade point average.  Meanwhile, the point of the whole exercise, learning how to work in groups and solving some problem having to do with the curriculum is lost.  

Deemphasizing Grades

Successful group work requires that each member of the team be focused on one goal.  Grades are not that goal.  Grades are outside of the project, given out by someone external from the process.  Creative solutions to problems need to come from within the artists, and the minute they start producing what they think the teacher wants, any chance of honest expression is lost.  Instead it becomes a guessing game; the question, "what is your interpretation of the text?" becomes, "what do you think is the teachers interpretation of the text."  A student who feels she must get an "A" on every assignment will never take a risk, will never trust anyone else, and will always need to be in control.

From this perspective, the entire conflict outlined above is about grades.  Debbie needs to get a good grade.  Tom does not.  For this reason Debbie does not trust him. Tom senses this distrust and takes it personally.  The other two side with Debbie, not because she has the better idea, but because she "knows how to get good grades."  Calling Tom "lazy" is just a ruse.  If he were truly lazy he would just let Debbie do all the work and keep quiet (similar to what Steve is doing.) Debbie is freaking out here because Tom wants to do things.  Tom could be the most brilliant student in an honors class and as long as Tom does not NEED an "A" this conflict could still take place.  Imagine that Tom wants to take a risk, go big, but Debbie wants to play it safe, match the example, get her "A" and move on.  It would be the same dynamic. Lisa would still side with her friend and Steve would still try to stay out of it.  

The best environment for creative and honest solutions is one where grades are deemphasized.  Create an atmosphere where students trust that if they work hard and do their best they will not be disappointed with their grade.  Then avoid any talk of grades.  "Will doing this get me a better grade?"  needs to be actively turned into "Do you mean, will it make your presentation more clear?  More entertaining?  More informative?"  The best way to encourage and teach students to focus on the solution is to model that behavior.   Grades, like money, will get them through the door, but in order to truly be great, motivation needs to come from within.  That is true with students, teachers, professional athletes, dish washers, and captains of industry.

Grouping Strategies

It is an axiom that the way to avoid these types of conflicts is through thoughtful group selection.  Major corporations give big money to consultants who develop personality tests and other systems that promise to create groups that will work better.  Teachers, however, don't have big money, so they have to rely on ideas and philosophies that are out there and seem to make sense.  The problem is that group selection strategies can create more problems than they solve.

The most common go to strategy is summed up by the phrase "mixed ability grouping."  This means that teachers should stress diversity when choosing groups; they should consider the skills and strengths of the members of the group when creating them.  The problem is that most teachers implement this by taking the top five or six students in the class and splitting them up.  This creates some very unhealthy dynamics.  From a strictly practical viewpoint this works for the teacher because she is guaranteed a decent project from each group.  Those top students will do it themselves if they have to, (and often they do!)  But in terms of teaching students how to work cooperatively and engaging them in their learning, nothing could be worse.

Debbie is an example of this problem.  It is very likely that she has never been in a group with a student that she saw as her equal.  She interprets this situation as a mandate from her teachers that she is to take charge.  To her, this means telling everyone what to do (or doing it herself.) Tom is also very unlikely to ever be with his friends.  This is due to the second most common grouping strategy, "separate the distractions."  The real problem is that this will never change.  In every group, in every class, year in and year out, Debbie will always be placed with an underachieving, disruptive student, Tom will always be placed with a grade dependent, controlling, overachiever, and Steve and Lisa will always be placed directly in the middle.  When one considers this, it is no wonder why this group exploded.

This sort of problem shows up in other ways as well.  How many times does that incredibly kind, patient student in your class get paired up with the kid that needs the most help?  Always.  In every class.  Maybe a teacher will shake things up and place people with kids that are similar.  Someone like "Lisa" above will look at her group and think, "Is this what she thinks of me?!"  Another teacher will not let the kids know what the grouping criteria is, which then leaves it up to the students to try to figure it out on their own.  (I remember a seventh grader walking up to a colleague of mine and saying, "I am not going to be friends with her and you can't make me!"  The outburst turned out to be the result of her misreading the thinking behind a group placement.) 

All of this should remind us that students are really powerless in school.  Their experience is subject to the whims of the adults around them.  Grouping strategies are a good example of this dynamic.  Teachers who thoughtfully place kids into groups may be doing the best they can and many are very good at it!  But keep in mind that the data that we are using are from first impressions, reputations, past experiences.  We tell them that school is about making good choices and trying on new versions of themselves, but then they become stuck in their own prior selves.  Also, just because they are not showing the frustration or confusion about the groups they are in does not mean they are not feeling it.  Remember, that incredibly kind and patient student is also going to be kind and patient with her teacher! 

Groups are best when they are random and temporary.  When they are random students are more apt to accept the group they get, and are more ready to follow the rules and advice that teachers put forward for making the groups work better.   By being temporary, students are more able to postpone judgement and fully accept their team.  To get the full benefits of random groups, make sure the selection system is completely transparent.  In other words, prove to the students that they are random because it was done in front of them. Random groupings also will place kids together that would never be placed together purposefully.   It is fine to recognize this and, if they like the group, tell them to take it as an opportunity or a challenge to show the world they can do it.  If the kids with the highest grades end up together, tell them that the bar is high!  By working with different groups throughout the year, kids will be called upon to have different rolls and and use different skills. Lisa will be asked to lead.  Debbie might need to follow.  Tom might experience the feeling that if he doesn't do it, it wont get done.  In this way random groups become empowering!

Full Commitment!

Full commitment in a group project or activity means that each member of the group is mentally, emotionally and physically engaged in achieving the same goal.  When the group is making decisions, everyone should leaning in, equally participating and equally valued.  When Tom does his part well, the other members of the group should cheer with him, not just for him.    The student who steps aside from the beginning and let the others do all the thinking should be seen as letting their team down.

This brings us to Steve.  Everyone who reads the script above likes Steve, and for good reason!  He seems nice. He is mature enough not to get involved in the drama, diplomatic enough to avoid bad-mouthing his peers, and intuitive enough to be able to understand where each of them is coming from.  Steve, though is letting his group down.  He has all of these talents and he isn't using them!  The fact is that Steve's opinion in this situation would probably have the most credibility within the group.  His group is in flames, burning all around him and he is just sitting there drawing.  Tom is seen as the lazy one--but at least he is engaged!  Steve's lack of engagement should be a source of frustration to any teacher dedicated to advancing his or her student's group work skills.

The best idea should win!

One of the most important jobs of any group is to seek out, find and get behind the best idea the group can generate.    It must never be "Debbie's Idea", "Tom's Idea," "Lisa's Idea," it is the group's first idea, second idea, third idea.  Every idea belongs to the group, and the best idea should always win.  A student who is willing to adjust their thinking for the sake of the better idea should be seen as heroic!  Ego will always create dysfunction.  When group members take sides, things start to fall apart.  The best groups never resort to voting, they achieve consensus. 

Lisa's main contribution to this group's dysfunction was that she was taking sides.  It is clear to everyone, especially Tom, that it does not matter what he might come up with, Lisa will always want to do what Debbie comes up with.  Steve knows this too, and has so fully accepted it that it doesn't occur to him to participate in the process.  Lisa might truly believe that Debbie's idea is better, but that isn't the point.  It is the atmosphere that taking sides creates that causes the problem.  Lisa's job is to actively listen, give each idea a chance, come up with ideas of her own.  Debbie and Lisa must try hard to avoid making a show of or appealing to their friendship, because, again, their friendship is outside of the focus of the group.

True Leadership

Perhaps the best reason to introduce long term group projects into the curriculum is that it gives students the opportunity to be leaders and learn about leadership.  Debbie thinks of herself as a leader.  If this is the case, she is failing miserably, as her group and her project are going nowhere.  Debbie's mistake is the same error many of us make when we think of leadership;  she confused 'leader' with 'boss.'  This is an easy mistake to make.  Bosses are often called to lead, and people who show leadership skills are often asked to become the boss.  Bosses have been given responsibility and hopefully enough authority to be able to fulfill whatever it is that they need to accomplish.  Leaders shape and influence the opinions and actions of others.  They do it by showing a deep understanding of the needs and motivations of others, and an ability to persuade and inspire those around them. So, my principal is acting as my boss when she pulls me aside and informs me that I need to get to my lunch duty on time, but she is acting as a leader when she inspires me to go the extra mile with a student, or gives me the confidence to try that new program.  When my principal has to act like a boss, it is embarrassing for the both of us, when she shows leadership, everyone wins.  Leadership can come from anywhere, however.  My school is filled with leaders, they are teachers, students, secretaries you name it, and that is what makes it a great school.

When a peer starts acting like another peer's boss, things can get tense fast.  Debbie believed she was given authority by the teacher, and was using it on her group.  This is why she went to the teacher for help when Tom failed to comply.  If the teacher sides with Debbie by removing him from the group or telling him to listen to Debbie, that supports the idea that Debbie is the boss.  If we believe Debbie has the potential to be a true leader, this is a pivotal time in her development.  If, in the future, she tries to fill a leadership role in the school or in her career, she will need to be able to convince Tom, or people like him, to follow her, or, better yet, inspire him to use his skills and ideas for the greater good!  To accomplish this, she needs to understand that leadership is service.  She needs to know that good leaders learn about the skills, interests and motivations of their group members and then will inspire them to produce their best work by providing them with what they need.  As Debbie's teacher, we can show leadership by trying to remove the road blocks that are in her way from achieving this skill.  Reducing her stress about her grade and exploring whatever bias she might have against Tom is probably a good start.

The best teams that I ever worked with were full of leaders.  Imagine six students (or teachers, or engineers) all focused on one goal, and constantly working to inspire and serve everyone else on the team.  Each always looking to follow, but not afraid to take the lead.  Feeling personal responsibility for the team's setbacks, but deferring credit to the team when they succeed.  There is nothing that team would not be able to accomplish.  This is how problems are solved, championships are won, new products are created and how students truly grow!