We can work it out.

Sometimes convincing ourselves (of fill in the blank) is the most challenging argument of all; we set rules and boundaries of fair play, and then (sometimes aggressively) expect others to abide. And one life occasion where this is grandly obvious is the activity of “group work.”

when I die

Let’s talk about the beast that is ‘group work.’ There are multiple lists of how to make group work run more smoothly, and whether we want to admit this horrible truth about adulthood to our young charges, a reality of most work environments. And like just about everything with a label, not all group work, project-based, problem-based, etc. endeavors is created equal. Four 13 years olds deciding how the XVIII Amendment altered their lives does not necessarily engage the intellect or free the senses. Rarely will the ONE IDEA TO RULE THEM ALL emerges when more than one person is in charge: the compromises and ‘go along’ attitudes vary on spectrums depending on a group member’s individual temperament. Does the student see themselves as the leader, the boss, or the bewildered head-nodder? And we all play our part in group work--think about any staff meeting or committee you’ve been on, and how much effectively and efficiently gets done. Not much. Perhaps it is the ‘getting done’ part —do we want the result the process or the product?

And yes, while introducing the group project we completed right before the break, I scared my students with the TALES OF THE OPEN CRYPT OFFICE SPACES, and kind of a quasi ‘all for one fails, one for all fails’ kind of tactic. Not very nice of me, but they forced my hand –listening and collaborating are skills I hold dear, and by this time in the year it was time to put those values to the test. And up to this point, group work was one area of deficiency. I do want them to achieve great things, and learning how to be heard and gain people’s trust and belief  is part of that. But I also hold the individual studio/workshop time and process sacred. If I had to choose between creating in a vacuum, never sharing my work, or to listen to other people’s ideas in a group forever, that would be a special kind of hellish choice for me.

But here’s the tricky part: in any group, does there need to be recognition for (only) one or two visionaries? Perhaps we’ve been looking at group roles all wrong. Perhaps everyone needs a chance to be the ‘visionary’ and direct the work and shark-tank their ideas through a vetting process. I wonder if Bisman Deu had brought up her phenomenal idea in a classroom setting if no one would have listened to her, and her idea would have been tossed in the wastebasket. John Spencer wrote about the seven types of creative teachers: how can we apply this to students’ personalities and work styles?

I did say regarding some group work it is life or death. In all seriousness, Bob Ebeiling carried 30 years of guilt because no one listened to him when he tried to warn of the shuttle disaster. It can have tragic and deeply personal consequences when teams don’t heed others warnings.


Self-Perception, Individualism, and Performance

Perhaps it’s time to focus on the individual’s skill set in terms of their self-perception before going into a group project. In other words, each student reflects in an individual asset portfolio, thinking about their own perceptions of their role in a group project, their strengths, and their triggers. I can think of one student who is shining in cooking in her elective class, and gets the other students to follow directions and is a leader, while during the group work for the Amendments Project, she floundered and pointed fingers. My class work demands reading, and she struggles with this. Therefore, her sense of self-efficacy diminished per the demands of the tasks.

How Does Self-Perception Affect Performance?

Kids who see themselves as “good” students tend to trust their efforts. Because they believe in their ability to adapt and learn, these students have a high sense of “self-efficacy” (Ruddell and Unrau 2004). We can think of self-efficacy as a kind of faith in future results; it’s a student’s belief that, through personal effort, he or she can master new knowledge and skills. The idea of self-efficacy also reflects an understanding that academic competency is an acquired— not a natural— ability. Everyone can relate to the feeling of being a novice. We expect to make mistakes when learning to ride a bike, play soccer, or drive a car. However, some students don’t see the same learning curve when it comes to their academic work. They see themselves as “bad” students who have “always” struggled in school. Revealing the process of apprenticeship that all learning requires can reassure many frustrated students— and help them understand that the first step toward better performance is to see themselves as capable of achievement. Students who develop this strong sense of self-efficacy are, not surprisingly, more motivated to improve their reading and writing skills. Self-efficacy can be especially important for low-income and minority students. Research suggests that sustained effort over time, as reflected by high school GPA, is a more accurate predictor of college success than high-stakes assessments like the SAT— a test on which students with high socioeconomic status typically outperform students with low socioeconomic status (Geiser and Santelices 2007). Personal attributes such as motivation, discipline, and perseverance— in other words, a high sense of self-efficacy— can be even more important indicators of academic preparation than traditional aptitude tests. This means that students who consistently trust their efforts have a better chance of completing a college education.

Fletcher, Jennifer (2015-02-28). Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response (Kindle Locations 4663-4677). Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Here are some of my tips about group work that I’ve learned the hard way:

  1. Always balance a group portion with an individual one.
  2. Allow them time to divvy up the tasks to allow for ownership. Make this process transparent.
  3. Provide time for a group mission statement, resolution, or creed. Post it on the wall.
  4. Create a template if necessary, but also, allow more advanced group work to lead toward medium agnosticism. 
  5. For middle school kids, they will be furious and resentful if one of their groupmates isn’t pulling her share. Welcome to life, kiddo. See #1, and let that be your response.
  6. Consider the process over product: for the Amendment Project (details below), the target and success depended on more upon what they learned, and what they could teach me and each other than perfect spelling or presentation skills at the front of the room. (Big fan of the gallery-walk structure.)

The Amendment Project

As with any new unit of study, tweaks and adjustments are required.

  1. Divide students in groups of 4 (3-5).
  2. Have them read through the Amendments and choose ones that intrigue them.
  3. Bring their ideas to their group, and decide which one they will focus on.
  4. Claim Evidence Reasoning document to help guide their knowledge building
  5. Provide a template for initial group work, then move toward medium agnostic for more advanced projects.
  6. Reading for Argument template
  7. Make sure to give space for their individual contributions (per the template)
  8. Provide discussions/forums to allow for individual contributions
  9. Be aware that many shared, collaborative tech tools let us down: PowerPoint on-line is still wonky and weird. One student was near tears because it deleted his final thoughts paragraph. I’m disappointed, too, because he is an articulate thinker and I always enjoy reading his insights.

There were many excellent exchanges and sharing of ideas that resulted from this project. One student looked up at me, shaking his head and said, “Mrs. Love…electoral college…” I know, young squire….I know. The other one happened when a student didn’t think the law about being a ‘natural born citizen’ was fair. I said well, it is what it is, basically, and then later, another member of his group respectfully said, “Mrs. Love, you’re right most of the time….” and I said, “But this time I’m not, right?” He said yes. Then we had one of the best discussions about ‘natural born citizens’ in the context of its time, and what it means now, and that laws are messy–and that’s the beauty. I could see a roomful of young men and women who would be amazing leaders of this nation, and I told them if this was their mission, to learn, be a scholar, understand law, and they could create amendments to suit their vision. Dangerous thinking? Absolutely. The key is teaching context, and any concept in a contexual framework of ‘then and now’ creates the liveliest and most engaging of humanities discourse.

Every single one of my students was successful with this project — every one. Every student contributed to the conversation, the work, and the process. They took the laws and considered them as relevant to their worlds today. I can’t ask for any greater self-efficacy than that.

Project Based Learning Resource:

Buck Institute for Education (BIE)