Thanks, I Think, Dept.


A few days ago, I left a comment at Annie Murphy Paul’s blog  in which she talks about how group work doesn’t have to be annoying. (See…/why-students-dont-like-active…/ ) In her latest blog post, she quoted from my comment which was:

“Quite true; students are novices. Particularly true in lower grades (k-8) where group work and student-centered, inquiry-based classes have become more common over the years. Thus, the comparison of “group work” to the collaboration that supposedly is going on in the working world and which they will need to do is flawed. In the real world, whatever collaboration occurs consists of people bringing their individual expertise to the table. In school, everyone is essentially a novice, so you have either the blind leading the blind, or the smart kids … take the lead and do the work that no one else does.”

She left out some words at the ellipses. It was the following parenthetical remark: “(who excel sometimes because they are getting traditionally based education at home, via tutor, or learning center)”. I guess she found that a bit too snarky.

But in her latest blog post she talks about how group work needn’t be the blind leading the blind, even though kids are in fact novices. She describes an approach called “jig saw” in which each student is given a portion of the assignment to do their homework on, and then must instruct the other members of the team of their findings so all can put together whatever it is they’re doing.

I have engaged in such “jig saw” activities in a class I took in ed school. What happens is the same thing that happens in a relay race where you have to carry a bunch of bean bags and awkwardly sized objects, run around a track and then dump the said objects, plus one more into the next person’s arms. The stuff is never dumped in an organized way so that the next person can carry it.  As a result, the next person has to run a bit slower than they would ordinarily, with objects becoming more disarrayed, and then dumped into even more jumbled fashion into the next person’s arms. With “jig saw” each person does a mind dump, glad to get it out of the way, and other members, nervous about their own area of so-called “expertise” can barely absorb the information the person is imparting.

I suppose jig saw can be made to work well.  But since I have my own confirmation bias against group work, I’m not disposed to saying “Wow that sounds like a great idea”. Instead, I am disposed to say “Why not teach students how to organize thoughts and areas of inquiry and then assemble the facts into coherent written form, or whatever the assignment happens to be? Why must it always be assumed that we must work collaboratively now that we’re in the 21st century?

It seems to me that students will learn more if they each write their own essay–or work on math problems by themselves.  But the group-think of the edu-establishment would have us believe that these type of group activities provide “authentic” collaboration experiences that students will later find in the real world.  In reality, there are other more authentic, opportunities to learn to work together: playgrounds, sports teams, music, theater and more.  The collaboration exercises they are forced to do in academic classes are more artificial than they are authentic.  If students learn how to read, write, do math, and think for themselves,  they’ll be able to collaborate better.


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