Grouping in the Dark

by kiminogomi

I have a confession: I have become disillusioned with group work. Not because I don’t value collaboration or peer learning, but because my students don’t — especially the smart ones.

It wasn’t always this way. When I first started teaching, back around — oh, let’s not talk about that. Suffice it to say that group work was relatively new to the academy, and was entirely new to most undergraduates. They seemed to find it very exciting, being asked to come up with ideas together, and went to work enthusiastically to impress each other with their insight. But the millenials have a different attitude: they have been exposed to group work since middle school, and they are sick of it. They roll their eyes as they drag tables into new positions, they smirk knowingly at prompts, and they breeze through the work and then quickly Balkanize into pairs and singletons.

Recent research may give us insight into this phenomenon: group work functions effectively when critical comments and debate are built in, and when the group members are similar or familiar with each other, but not too much so (see two recent articles, Jonah Lehrer’s “Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth,” in The New Yorker for January 30 2012, and Susan Cain’s “Rise of the New Groupthink” in The New York Times Sunday Review of January 13 2012). What this suggests is that group work bores different sets of my students for different reasons: the prompts may be too obvious and open for the majors, who know the material and each other, while the less comfortable students find the social aspects of the exercise daunting. Seminars are the right setting for the exercise, but then a good seminar is already a work group.

Why didn’t I figure this out sooner? Probably because like many teachers I forget that my work and study ethos is not necessarily the default setting. I am lucky enough to work with colleagues whose Q level is fairly ideal: we know each other, share many values, but also can disagree. But I have also worked with colleagues who did not play well together, with predictable results: nothing ever got done.

The good news is this: the online environment appears to do away with some of the problems of FTF group work. We know that people are much more willing to be critical online, and apparently this freedom can be channelled constructively and productively through large-scale collaboration and critical debate. At the same time, there is evidence that shared space and proximity increase the productivity and quality of group ideas.

So here’s another argument for the hybrid classroom, one that exploits the best of both FTF and electronic, that builds groups in real space but also virtually. It may give groupthink new life.