14 July 2016

School is not work, students are not experts (some thoughts on group work)

In continuation of my previous post, some thoughts on one of progressive education’s favorite tools: group work. 

A good deal of fuss is currently being made of the importance of preparing students to work collaboratively in groups, in preparation for the twenty-first century economy. In the context of these discussions, group work, much like “critical thinking,” is typically presented as a formal skill that can be developed in the absence of any specific context.

On the surface, this is one of those claims that seems eminently reasonable. Because many well-paying jobs in the current economy do in fact require some degree of collaboration among workers, it seems logical that children should be trained to work collaboratively.

But a school is not the workplace, and the embrace of group work as a goal in and of itself overlooks the fact the real-life conditions under which adult workers collaborate are markedly different from the conditions under which students are expected to do so.

First, when adults are hired for skilled, white-collar jobs (presumably the type of “twenty-first century jobs” schools are currently devoted to preparing students for), they are typically hired because of their expertise in a particular field.

When they collaborate in groups with their colleagues, it is not for the purpose of fulfilling some pedagogical imperative but rather because their particular areas of expertise make the individual group members particularly well-suited to working together toward a specific goal.

In addition, it can normally be taken for granted that while members have a variety of strengths and weaknesses, they all possess a full array of basic competencies; indeed, it is reasonable to assume they would not have been hired otherwise.

In sharp contrast, the primary purpose of school is not (or, at the very least, should not be) to have children share their expertise in the service of a particular goal, but rather to acquire a broad range of fundamental knowledge. With the exception of a minuscule percentage of students who are truly capable of performing at an adult level in a particular area, children are not experts in the same way that adults paid to do a particular job are.

Whereas employees are contracted to serve their employers’ bottom line, schools exist to serve children — not in the sense of waiting on them hand and foot, but rather in the sense of assuming responsibility for equipping them with the skills necessary to become functioning members of society. This is a fundamentally different paradigm from that of the working world, and for that reason, the two cannot truly be equated. 

As is the case in so many other areas of education these days, part of the compulsive focus on group work results from the confusion between behaving like experts and actually being experts. The assumption is that if students are taught to display the same behaviors that experienced adult professionals display, then they will actually come to possess the know-how of those adults (the “cargo cult” theory of education, or “rote understanding”). Doing is substituted for knowing. 

Furthermore, children are not hired by schools as a result of their meeting specific professional criteria, but rather are placed in them according to a variety of geographic, socio-economic, and academic factors. The range of basic skills to be exhibited in a given classroom thus tends to be far wider than those exhibited by adults collaborating in a professional setting.

So while groups composed of adults are of course sometimes plagued by slackers and whiners and generally difficult personalities, there is usually a baseline level of competence that can be taken for granted; in contrast, groups of students are considerably more likely to contain members who are genuinely lacking in basic skills.

As a result, stronger students inevitably end up covering for weaker ones (why struggle with something unpleasant when you can pan it off on someone else?), regardless of whether teachers are careful to assign each member a specific role in an attempt to preclude that possibility.

Is that really the lesson that group work is intended to impart — that diligent, knowledgeable students should learn to cover for their less diligent and knowledgeable peers, while the latter should learn to exploit the generosity of the former?

That is undoubtedly how the world actually does work sometimes, but it is highly questionable whether schools should be going out of their way to facilitate those types of interactions in the name of promoting an amorphous ideal of “collaboration.”

Let me cite Hannah Arendt here:

The authority that tells the individual child what to do and what not to do rests with the child group itself–and this produces, among other consequences, a situation in which the adult stands helpless before the individual child and out of contact with him. He can only tell him to do what he likes and then prevent the worst from happening…

As for the child in the group, he is of course rather worse off than before. For the authority of a group, even a child group, is always considerably stronger and more tyrannical than the severest authority of an individual person can ever be. If one looks at it from the standpoint of the individual child, his chances to rebel or to do anything on his own hook are practically nil; he no longer finds himself in a very unequal contest with a person who has, to be sure, absolute superiority over him but in contest with whom he can nevertheless count on the solidarity of other children, that is, of his own kind; rather he is in the position, hopeless by definition, of a minority of one confronted by the absolute majority of all the others…

Therefore by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority.

(But obviously, children jabbering away at each in their groups look so happy and engaged that this sort of coercion could not possibly be taking place!)

As a matter of strict practicality, there is no way that any teacher can control each individual group in a classroom designed to resemble a three-ring circus. Adult group dynamics can undoubtedly be toxic at times, but at least they take place in the context of people with fully developed prefrontal cortexes. And at any rate, a student whose primary takeaway from years of group work is a finely honed ability to foist responsibility onto others is hardly anyone’s dream employee/colleague. Experience can cut both ways.

Furthermore, the practice of letting students consistently play to their strengths in the service of pretending that they are experts deprives them of the less-pleasant but essential experience of gaining important competencies that do not come easily. Learning to master the basics is a crucial part of what school is for. If students fail to gain fundamental knowledge in school and do not have parents or tutors to fill in the gaps, where, then, will they acquire these skills? 

The attempt to prepare students for the working world by having them imitate a common workplace behavior thus has the paradoxical effect of making them less prepared to join the adult world. If employers complain that their younger hires have difficulty collaborating, they are still talking about people who had the skills to be hired in the first place. People who lack the skills to do the job are, for obvious reasons, not part of the equation — and one of employers’ biggest complaints involves recent graduates who lack the skills necessary to be hired in the first place. 

It is also highly debatable whether employers and teachers even have the same definition of group work.

In school, it has come to refer to the classroom practice of dividing students into small groups of three to five, in which each student is assigned a specific role, with the expectation that they will teach one another as well as demonstrate that they are learning actively. Meanwhile, the teacher circulates, monitoring interactions, gathering data, and occasionally providing clarification (but not, heaven forbid, direct instruction!) tailored to individual students’ and groups’ unique learning styles. (If you think this is a caricature, you probably don’t have much experience with contemporary educational pedagogy.)

It seems reasonable, however, to assume that employers would have a somewhat broader definition of what constitutes group work. In a real-world setting, successful participation in group work involves, among other things, the ability to work autonomously for long stretches (projects often stretch for weeks or even months) and to summarize one’s clearly work to others; to interact with people of different ages and experience levels, in-person and electronically, and to adjust one’s communication style accordingly;  to express one’s ideas clearly and and succinctly in writing, complete with proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.; and to complete assignments by their deadlines.

The development of these skills is hardly contingent on the amount of group work one has participated in throughout school. In fact, students whose primary mode of interaction involves chatting with their peers are unlikely to accrue the skills necessary to communicate effectively with anyone over the age of 21. Again, the effect is to keep students in a prolonged state of immaturity.

Finally, the notion the students will fail to acquire the soft skills necessary to flourish in the twenty-first century workplace unless schools reject direct, teacher-led instruction in favor of small, student-led groups runs counter to both history and common sense. Participating in groups is part of participating in life. A family is a group. A class is a group. A sports team is a group. (American children probably spend nearly as much time participating in extracurricular group activities as they do in school.) Adults have successfully worked in groups for thousands of years; modern civilization could not have been built otherwise. 

The economic shift toward high-knowledge jobs and away from manual ones should therefore not necessitate the knee-jerk replacement of pedagogical techniques that, after all, have remained pretty effective throughout centuries of upheaval. It is the height of arrogance to assume that the recent proliferation of digital devices suddenly nullifies an entire body of accumulated wisdom — that because years now begin with 20- rather than 19-, we are so unique, so modern, that the past can no longer inform our approach to learning. 

And on a practical note, as someone who has now hired a number of people for various positions, I can state that in some regards, things haven’t really changed all that much. A person who possesses the requisite skill-set for a job, presents themselves professionally, is reliable, pays attention to details, writes clearly, has a healthy dose of common sense, and is generally pleasant to be around, will not have an outsized amount of trouble finding or retaining some sort of job in most fields — even in the twenty-first century.


Note: for one other great take down of group work, see http://www.aft.org/ae/spring2015/bennett.

1 Response

  1. Freya

    As a writer who dipped briefly into the world of Montessori “teaching” (thus losing my ideals), I absolutely love this post. Spot on.

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