Sunday, September 9, 2012

Group Love (or lack thereof)

Everyone says time moves quickly.  Not always.  Grouplove agrees with their song Slow (click the link and give it a's Sunday afternoon, what else do you have to do?). The more I listen to this song, the more I enjoy it.  I highly recommend the whole album, Never Trust a Happy Song.  I would humbly suggest that the radio releases from Grouplove are not their best efforts from their first, and now one-year-old album. 

My recent re-introduction to the academic community has been fantastic.  I have thoroughly enjoyed the content and the experience, despite (perhaps even because of) the hard and extensive work that it has entailed.  My colleagues and professors thus far have all been top-notch, and I’ve learned much from both.

That said, if there was on chief “question mark” in my mind around my education, it has been the relentless assault of “group discussion” and “group projects.” 

And I know this is not unique to my university.  It is an epidemic if you will.

Disclaimer: I do not disapprove of group work or group projects.

I don’t want this to be a rant.  I will admit “ranting capability” is fermenting inside me.

What has caused me some……we’ll call it “consternation”……is that in the majority of my classes, we cannot go more than about fifteen minutes without “breaking into groups” of some kind. 

The mentality seems to be that no lesson or mini-lesson is complete until it is discussed for “five-minutes” in a group setting.  These “small groups” often include the production of some kind of written summary document.  Often the groups are all assigned the same task, such that when we go around the room and “share” after the project is complete, we all just repeat the same information.  Rarely is the standard “five minutes” enough to fully extrapolate the ideas found in graduate level classes.  A round of applause is given for each group, and we’re done.

With the extensive group work, I sometimes also perceive what I will call a “lack of the expert” happening.  That is, an instructor can be so focused on getting students to work together, that he/she forgets that they are the experts and we are the students.  The reason we are in the class is for their expertise, not just the opinions of our fellow learners (i.e. current non-experts).

This is admittedly a complex topic.  Most things are, as it turns out (…or maybe I just make them that way).

In a short period of writing, I won’t go into every different group situation that I have been a part of.  Instead, I will throw out some generic observations that I have made and some theoretical ideas I have around them (because you know I love that).

(Hint: Points #1 and #4 are my biggest concerns if you don’t have time to read the whole thing.)

1.) Hat Trick

3 = Good
4 = Marginal
5 or more = Bad

For in-class small group discussions of readings or content, my observation has been that when four or more students are grouped to discuss a topic, someone always bails out on the conversation.

How do I know?  Because usually it is me.  My personality is such that I am not a big fan of larger group discussions.  If you give me the chance, in a group of four or more, I’ll probably keep my mouth shut.  Especially in settings with people I don’t know well (which is common in classrooms).  I’ll still listen and think, but I’m less likely to contribute.  I imagine (hope) I am not the only one like this.

Character flaw?  Sure…I’m fine with that.

For me, four or more often harkens back to that old adage of, “too many cooks in the kitchen”…especially when smart people are involved, which is often the case at my university.

2.) Bigger group discussions need a talking ball

Not literally a talking ball.

Bigger groups without a clear facilitator seem to run better if there is an object, like a ball, that must be held in order to talk.  If you don’t have the ball, you listen.

This social experiment is amazing to watch.  Like my yellow Lab, Molly, we all perform better when there is a ball involved.

(I had a treat sitting in front of her, which is why she looks so intense!)

3.) Bigger groups need a leader

Yes, a literal leader.

Going back to my days in the corporate world, I had several unfortunate experiences involving meetings where no leader was present.

That is not to say a “boss” of some kind was not in the room, just that he/she chose not to lead.  The boss would call it “getting everyone’s opinion.”  I have no problem with that…unless “getting everyone’s opinion” is a cover for being afraid to upset some members of the group by making a firm decision, then carrying it out. 

Getting philosophical, it’s about striking the balance (as always).  No one wants a leader who doesn’t listen.  At the same time, no one wants a “leader” who doesn’t lead (i.e. is afraid to speak up and act decisively).

The classroom version of this is the teacher throwing out the classic “what do you think?” question and thirty minutes later we are no further along in understanding the content.  Everyone simply gives their first thoughts, and no time is devoted to actually breaking down some of those thoughts and digesting the content with respect to them.

The goal of the classroom is to learn the content, not for everyone to get to talk (myself included).  To that end, the teacher needs to facilitate the breaking down of A FEW of the valid points from the students, and direct that toward understanding the material. 

4.) I’m here to learn from the expert

Us introverts want to hear from the expert.  We like forty-minute lectures.  We like taking notes.  We don’t want to discuss it with our neighbors (yet). 

We want to hear what an expert has to say, chew on it, form some opinions, bounce some ideas off the instructor or maybe a friend…THEN we might want to discuss it in a group setting.  Better yet, let us write about it first, and then we might be receptive to talking about it with a group.

Instructors, if you are the expert, please be the expert.

As I said before, I am not opposed to group discussion.  Ron Ritchhart is an author that I have come to enjoy reading through some of my course assignments.  In his book called Intellectual Character he states:

“Social dialogues expose students to the language of thinking.” 

I agree with this statement.  Through social dialogue we get to watch other people think.  I find it truly fascinating to watch how other people’s minds work.  It helps me think.  It makes my mind work better (most of the time).

Talking and writing are also methods by which we congeal our own abstract thoughts and test them for validity.  As such, group discussions are a necessary and important part of educating ourselves.

However, “group discussions” are often used like a saltshaker in the classroom.  The instructor designs a lesson, then sprinkles a bunch of group discussions without any regard to how they will enhance the learning…because the assumption is group discussion always helps the learning…which I contend is a faulty assumption.

What I am asking for is more strategic approach to the use of these social dialogues when the setting is an organized place like a boardroom or classroom.

So did you read the whole thing blog?  Okay, now find three or four people who’ve also read it and discuss amongst yourselves…

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