April 27, 2010
Working Alone and Together
A few days ago I spoke with a group of basic educators taking courses for a master’s degree program. It’s the third time I’ve spoken to groups enrolled in this innovative program, and each time I leave with the same two impressions. Some aspects of teaching are the same no matter how old or young the students are, and all teachers have lessons to learn from and with each other. I wish more college teachers believed in these possibilities.
We were discussing small groups and what to do with those students who resist participating in groups. They’re those independent learners who participate in group activities reluctantly and almost always prefer to do it alone. Should we excuse them from group work when they want to go it alone? There were points made on both sides. If they don’t learn well in social contexts, then why should we place them in situations that compromise what they’re going to learn? But group work is expected in so many professional contexts. Aren’t we doing students a disservice if we don’t help them develop the skills they’ll need to function effectively in groups?
Then Professor Betsy Mudler made an interesting observation—something I’d never thought of before. We are concerned about whether we should “force” (maybe the word’s too strong, “require”) student participation in group work. But when we have students working individually, we aren’t in the same quandry about those learners who really do better when they are working with others. What if one of them should approach us with a request to work on the project with others? Would the request take us by surprise? I suspect it would. Professor Mudler’s point was that our lack of concern about individual work speaks to the strengths of those assumptions we make about value of working alone and figuring it out for yourself.
In reality students need to be able to learn individually and in groups, as both situations will confront them in their professional and personal lives. They may prefer one learning context over the other, but as I used to tell my group-reluctant students, “You don’t have to like group work, but by golly you need a repertoire of skills that enables you to learn and work constructively in groups.”