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.