A Question on Forced Collaboration

From A Snowy April Day: Observations and a Question

Should you let kids work alone when they request it? I have a lot of students who absolutely do not like to work with other students and often cause a behavioral disruption or down-right refuse to work altogether. Since I teach middle school I usually try and fight them on this because I believe working with others is an important skill; however, should I instead recognize that that student learns better working independently and allow him/her to work alone?

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2 thoughts on “A Question on Forced Collaboration

  1. Working collaboratively in a group is an important skill for students to learn that will hold them in good stead for the rest of their lives, both personally and professionally. School is where this skill is first practiced. However, every learning experience doesn’t have to be done in a group. There are times when students need to work independently and times when they need to work in a group.

    I am visiting my daughter, who is a successful mechanical engineer in a leadership position. I read her your question and asked her opinion, knowing that her work involves working in many different groups around different projects. Here is a summary of what she said:

    “You’re thrown together in college and in work-life with groups you don’t choose. You have to work with them and understand that
    everyone brings something different to the table to benefit the diversity in the approach to a solution. You want to avoid “group think”, which is when everybody thinks the same thing and everyone goes along with it. When solving a real world problem, you can’t come to an ideal solution if nobody in the group challenges assumptions or approaches along the way. The training for working in a group and challenging the ideas of other group members starts in elementary school.”

    “There is a time for private learning. Everything is not group work. At work, everything is not done together. You talk about a problem or project as a group. Everyone goes off alone and tries to understand it on their own. The group assigns different work to different members. Each person does their part. The group comes back and discusses it and checks with the team to see if everybody agrees that it makes sense for the whole problem.”

    “Students that refuse to work with others are missing out from deeper understanding and from learning a very important life skill. People skills are extremely important in careers. The vast majority of careers involve dealing with other people.”

    “In grad school, a professor taught me that there are two different types of people: red people and blue people. Red people think while they talk. That’s how they process things. Blue people need time to process something before they are going to contribute to a group. I’m a blue person and need time to process alone before I contribute, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t work with the group.”

    I’d never heard of the “red people/blue people” idea. I would share this with the students and let them figure out whether they are mostly red or mostly blue. I would bet that nobody is all one or the other. Any group task that is a valid “problem” will need some private think time. This think time can be part of the group process. Also, I like my daughter’s idea about each person being responsible for a sub-assignment, which they work on independently and then take back to the group.

    When there is not a structure in group work, often one or two students do most of the work and the others may listen and copy, but they don’t learn. Perhaps the student you speak of in your question has had bad experiences in group work because (1) he/she usually does all of the work, or (2) he/she is a blue person who needs processing time, so always feels dumb in group full of red people. I’ve had that experience myself.

    CCSSM Practice Standard # 3 asks students to “construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.” This can’t be done unless students are talking to each other, either in a large class discussion, or in a small group. I suggest developing a group work process that takes into account all types of learners. It is a classroom culture that has to be developed over time and monitored by the teacher for its effectiveness.

    You are not alone in having this problem. I look forward to reading suggestions other teachers may have. Good luck!

  2. hillby says:

    Disclaimer: I gave up the fight on group work (for outside of class projects) in my current location because I saw so much dysfunction. Too many kids willing to do every bit of work and too many kids willing to let someone else do all of the thinking.

    I think it’s okay to allow students to work individually only occasionally – but it’s only a sign that they don’t know how to effectively work in groups. We have to teach them more about working in a group effectively (beyond just groupwork norms). Building off of the engineering & Red/Blue people (introverts & extroverts?) thing, It seems we should be teaching kids the skills of having individual time while working in a group.
    Perhaps a structure where students get an assignment, are given time to make sense of the situation themselves first. Then come together as a group, share the ideas, choose one as a group, divide the task if appropriate and split again. As I’m thinking about it right now, this is how the most effective groups I’ve worked in have operated.

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