A long sacrosanct pedagogical principle is that group projects and small group learning are indispensable to learning.
At a community college where I once worked, the form used to evaluate non-tenured faculty in the English department inquired whether the individual “fosters group activities such as study groups and team projects.” Group learning was regarded as so central to education that failure to use it lowered the likelihood of continued employment.
Belief in the efficacy of group learning is a form of academic group-think. It is a delusion that lives on in the face of common sense and the evidence of one’s own eyes that it is a waste of classroom time and an obstacle to student learning.
Having served on hiring and tenure evaluation committees, let me offer two samples from classroom observation visits where, presumably, given the stakes for the teacher being evaluated, the sparkling educational feats of group work should have been on parade.
The first concerns a literature class where to teach students to understand metaphor, the instructor circulated a set of lachrymose pop song lyrics and divvied the students into groups of three to identify and analyze the lyrics’ figures of speech.
On one side of the room, two students wandered in tardy and sat among others who silently refused to form into groups until the instructor walked over to confront them. During the collaboration period, most of the groups alternated between working desultorily and not at all. The instructor leaned against the edge of her desk silently observing her realm, then circulated briefly among the groups. There were many to visit, which precluded going into great depth with any.
Much might have been accomplished had the instructor used that class time to present accurate analysis and modeling the thought process of decoding metaphor and to directly question her students. Instead, the students learned very little from their group work.
The second example concerns a research paper class. The instructor organized the students into pairs, distributed book excerpts by authors connected to the research topic, then assigned the students to collaborate on teaching each other how to construct a paraphrase of the passages.
The student to my right spent his time not in collaborating with the student beside him, but in text messaging someone else. That the eyes of an adult authority figure (me) were looking directly at him rousing neither his concern nor the professor’s attention.
Next, a student in front of me began texting and then took out her cell phone and left the classroom to take a call. This also went unremarked by the professor being evaluated. Subsequently, three other students decided they also had more important business outside the classroom.
At one point the instructor asked a student to step to the front of the class and type into a computer that projected his just-generated collaborative paraphrased paragraph onto a large screen. Unfortunately, this was displayed in a font that required the visual acuity of a fighter pilot to decipher. The students, however, were too engaged in conversation to notice and ask that the font be changed.
During stages of the group work, some ignored the assignment and chatted and joked at various levels of volubility. When most of the groups had completed the assignment, the chatting became general and cacophonous.
Did the preponderance of the students learn anything about paraphrasing? That seems exceedingly unlikely.
How could it be otherwise? The central value of being in a classroom consists in the opportunity to be instructed directly by an expert credentialed in a core skill and complex body of knowledge, a teacher who has experience articulating ideas clearly and in holding students to rigorous standards of proficiency and civility. In some cases at least, those instructors have thought so profoundly about their field’s materials and truths that they get their students to share their excitement for the discipline.
The strategy of group work, in contrast, is to unleash learning by yoking together two or more students who often possess neither aptitude nor concern for the assignment. If a professor divides a class into small groups to correct grammar errors in their papers, no one should be surprised when the final papers substantially retain the original errors and have incorporated new ones.
Perhaps the most interesting unreality with which faculty mesmerize themselves to justify group work is the article of faith that group work is indispensable in teaching students how to work together collectively.
This rationale is irrelevant to gaining an intellectual skill, of course. Worse, it substitutes the opportunity for individual introspection and concentration with a set of social behaviors that can impede learning.
Small group advocates preserve their creed by blocking from consciousness what anyone who has actually participated in such groups knows. In groups, the personalities of the members elbow out high quality and originality of thought.
Groups are creatures of compromise, consensus, the intellectual mean, the mediocre.
Of course, students paying no attention in the classroom, texting, schmoozing, zoning out and ignoring the work, is not unique to small group work. It can also occur when teachers are engaging the class directly, albeit because under these conditions it directly disrupts the entire class, it does so for far shorter times and by far smaller numbers.
But that is not the point here. The raison d’etre for small group work is the postulate that it makes students more engaged in learning and more productive. From my observations, it does just the opposite.
The tragedy of classroom group work is it is a waste of a unique and precious classroom opportunity for students who, for perhaps the only time in their lives, are learning how to do their own thinking and intellectual work, uncontaminated by group conformity and pressure to knuckle under or remain silent.
Students are best served when professors use class time to teach them to think through a problem independently. There is a dignity that follows from learning to formulate one’s own analysis with uncompromised autonomy. That is in complete contradiction to the goals of small group work.
Small group learning accomplishes little beyond giving faculty time off from the hard work of instructing, lowering their essay grading load. It also gives students time off from the hard job of concentrating while providing mediocre and lazy students a camouflage from accurate evaluation of their work.
Lastly, this pedagogy fails at its own stated goal of producing people who work well in groups at their subsequent jobs. Anyone who has served on faculty, administrative or business committees, composed as by they are of people who were trained over years upon years of group assignments throughout their education, knows that many Americans participate in a way that says all one needs to know about how negligible and pitiful have been its fruits.