Life is Group Work

I was having lunch with a colleague the other day. She told me how she wanted to create a class log to keep track of what happens in each class next year, and she wanted the students to take turns writing the entries. This seemed like a great idea. I have tried the log before only to get too busy to keep them going. Incorporating the work into the class is a great solution to that perennial problem. We had both gotten the idea of the log from another colleague. In talking over lunch, it occurred to me that it would make sense to include the log entries on the syllabus, where students go to look for their homework assignments. We could also include links to readings, websites and class notes for each class. It would be one stop shopping for the students. This idea was really the work of three people – a group.

I have been teaching in teams for the past three years, and inevitably the work of the group is stronger than the work of any of us individually. Even for the courses I teach on my own, I seek counsel from my colleagues on a regular basis. We need to shift our students from traditional group work to a true model of collaboration, where they run ideas by each other, building as they go, testing and modifying with input from me and their peers, as well as experts in the field. Group work has a bad rap because we associate it with a dysfunctional project where work is uneven and conflict is present. I think that even more traditional group work would be much stronger if we worked on collaboration skills on every assignment.

In looking back this year, the best work my classes did were inquiry based units where they collected information together and generated the key questions as well as the answers together. Edcafes were successful, in large part due to the give and take among students. For the junior research paper, I encouraged learning groups to meet and required them at times. Students helped each other with ideas, sources, and sometimes just listening to a peer articulate a dilemma. It was a start. Even exam review was a group effort as we encouraged kids to work together to prepare answers to the questions we gave them ahead of time. In the end, each student needs to come to the exam and articulate his or her ideas and understandings, but the conversations that take places preparation are great examples of collaboration. Exam scores reflect the value of this approach.

I know that I will have a lot of new ideas and things I want to try next year. My “to incorporate” list is already in process. That is always the case. What will be different next year will be my consistent effort from day one to create a community of learners, willing to seek advice or information from a variety of sources. I am coming to think that the centrality of “group work” to everything they do is the most important thing I can teach kids. I think there are few aspects of my day that do not involve consulting others – both at work and at home.

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