Group work?

They are building a car powered by a rubber band. Although, to be clear, I’m not sure I should be using the word “they” in that sentence. A loose agglomeration of human beings of roughly age 10 are working on an assignment in the vicinity of one another. That about sums it up.

My son says that “the girls” took over and would not listen to him. His solution? Stop helping. At least one of the girls reported to her mother that “the boys” were just fooling around and didn’t do any of the work. The result? One girl and one boy are in my kitchen the night before the project is due, hot-gluing household items onto two entirely different cars neither of which reliably covers the required three metres. They plan to let the “group” vote on which one to use tomorrow. Both sides agree that the vote will likely divide along gender lines.


Every adult I’ve spoken to about this (because this group project has lasted for at least 10 painful days and other parents of other groups are equally put-upon) either rolls their eyes or laughs and says, “well, they might as well learn early what group work is really like.” And, though I wish it were otherwise, I more or less agree. I don’t have fond memories of group work from my school days. Heck, I even hate the group work I’ve had to do as an adult in my online courses. It’s hard for me to remember the synergy of a group of people, focused and contributing, creating something together that they simply couldn’t do on their own. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it’s transformative. Nevertheless, that’s not what I think of when I hear “group work.”

In the case of the rubber band car(s), I’m embarrassed to say that my first instinct was to blame the teacher: clearly the group work wasn’t well-structured, I thought. Teachers need to assign roles, break the task into parts, provide both independent and collaborative outcomes. But that’s kind of blather, isn’t it? I mean, it sort of works, but sort of doesn’t because group work is messy and complicated and often doesn’t lead to where we hoped it would go. Frankly, I assign group work only rarely, usually using the excuse that I need to “assess individual outcomes.” (Sometimes the words that come out of my mouth astonish me.) So I doubt that the group problems here really stem from the way the teacher assigned things.

But here I am. The kids are asleep, the cars are as done as they are going to be, and I’m wondering why the heck their project is bothering me. As I write, I keep trying to take the easy route, to switch gears to talking about my own classroom and jump right into “I’m going to assign more group work! I’ll research it, and I’ll do it better!” but I’m pretty sure that’s not the reflection I need.

How well do I work in groups? Do I “accept various roles”? Do I take over, listen to others or simply give up? What is a “good” group? What is the responsibility of the individual? How important is group work anyway?

I’m surprised by my ambivalence about the whole thing, but my thoughts keep returning to those two different cars limping towards the three-metre-mark, and I can’t help but wonder what that group needed to change to make one excellent car.



10 thoughts on “Group work?

  1. Big questions here, Mrs. Potts! I have found as an adult that I like group work better than I did as a child. I think I was always either wanting to take a leadership role and not knowing how to do it, or I was actually taking it being quite bossy to my group mates. No wonder I ended up doing all the work! You’ve taken a self-reg by asking why the group work bothers you. Perhaps you’ll find an answer?

    I love that the group narrowed down to two children who still couldn’t agree! I hope this teacher takes some time to debrief with the group about this – instead of just talking about the project, talk about the process!

    Finally, I want to say that your writing drew me in and I laughed, nodded my head, and shrugged my shoulders as I was reading. 🙂


  2. I love reading your slices because they are journeys of thought. I have to admit I am surprised a teacher would assign a group project for homework where she can’t watch the cooperation (or the not cooperating). I do remember a group project in grad school that was quite a challenge, but I think that was part of the reason it was assigned that way.
    Your ending questions are good ones. Any answers yet?


  3. Your slices are always so thoughtful and beautifully structured. You raise some good questions about group work and also remind me that we need to write about the things that “stick”. I always hated group work in school because while I was tremendously motivated to do well, other group members weren’t always so inclined. Looking back, they probably had a lot more fun than I did and maybe were a bit more balanced, but still, they weren’t great group members. I’ll be thinking about those questions!


  4. I enjoy reading your pieces. They make me laugh and think. I could imagine the gender divide and the drama that caused in this whole process. I can imagine blaming the teacher. And then your own reflections!


  5. This has me thinking about my own group work as a teacher and as an adult learner. I’m not sure I have any answers…yet, but definitely something to think about. My daughter, who was a strong student, didn’t like group work. My son, who is not as strong, liked the group work as long as someone else in the group was stronger than him. I wonder if there is any correlation there, too??


  6. I think you posted worthy questions for all of us to think about. How do we function in groups? It’s important for us to reflect on that before we can teach into collaborative work in ways that helps all kids feel successful.


  7. Good questions to ponder. Personally, I tend to do “assigned group work” because I have to… and the sooner It’s done, the better. But it is a different story with “group work by choice” — choice of the group, choice of the work. That raises more questions, right? I love your first paragraph description of the dynamics of group work in your kitchen. So real life!


  8. Your slice, its blend of truth and wry humor, got me wondering this: What if each student made a prototype, tested it, then worked as part of a group to create one best-possible second draft based on what they had learned individually?


  9. Chemistry makes all the difference…but how to create this? Esp. with young students who are using categories—gender expression being one of them— to understand/ construct reality. So little control when we are young and/or afraid. Everything that is new and different is scary. Individuation means we have to separate/assert ourselves, which inhibits open-mindedness. But this can also happen when we are adults. Insecurity leads to an inability to collaborate. For a “meeting of the minds” to take place, there needs to be a change in the culture of teaching. Focus on cross-curricular collaboration. Reward team work.


  10. Such interesting thoughts! I have found that when I talk to my college students at the beginning of the semester to let them process their group work traumatic pasts before we dive into a lot of collaborative learning, literally every single student says they hate group work because they had to do all of the work and the people in their groups never helped. I have no idea why we all have this perception that we’ve the only responsible ones in a group, but we all seem to. I have yet to hear from the group work slackers! I don’t think group work really started working in my classes until we did it every single day, multiple times. Learning together just became the norm. Lots of turn and talk with your group to process as well as actual projects and assignments. Until I changed the culture of my classroom. I probably should have done research and done some scaffolding and so forth, but I don’t give much in the way instruction so it was probably like “Find some other people to do something with” LOL. I still haven’t found a good way for it to work online–maybe because it’s harder to develop classroom chemistry online (for me anyway).


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