April 27th, 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.”

2 comments on “Working Alone and Together

  1. Very true and good thoughts. I have early childhood students who work and learn better in group settings and some who work and learn better individually. I offer lessons and activities to fit each setting so the students can learn to work with others and by themselves.

  2. for post secondary environments:

    For some the "desire" to work in out-of-class groups is so much more than preference, but often based on other demands and the desire to be more efficient in time utilization. Given that many now work 24/7 (on demand) and have other commitments (family, community) instructors have to be aware that students are not "just students", regardless of the level of institution.

    Education is a choice, an expensive choice, but a choice nonetheless. Unlike employees, for whom time is designated in their job description for out of office collaborations and community activities and included in their compensation, students are paying for the privilege of attendance and have budgeted their time so as to include physical presence (online or in person) and preparation (whether at 2 or 10am). Even if working, not everyone works the "traditional" 9-5 any longer.

    I decided to tackle this problem based on my own experiences. As one who has resisted group projects and for whom they rarely, if ever produce "learning" other than frustration and high costs, I wanted to find a better solution to the requirement of group project as determined by the approved course design… what makes sense to an adult learner who has many hats to balance and for which school, while important, isn't the only demand on one's life.

    My solution is to have all "group" work occur in the classroom in the form of small group, or whole class, problem solving or exercises. This eliminates the biggest problem of out-of-class group work–logistics. The higher the level of educational facility the less likely the students will all be geographically or calendar/clock "available". While I don't discourage out-of-class collaboration on projects, that work becomes much more individual, and the quality of class interest, participation, learning (as evidenced by assignments, tests, final projects) and enthusiasm was much improved. After redesigning my syllabus, there was greater retention over the semester and positive feedback as to the value of the course and attendance. Another benefit was students being able to practice group problem solving and learning under supervision… eliminating a lot of the issues of out-of-class group assignments.

    This is just one person's experience…

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