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.