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.
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."