Scott's Workblog

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October 31, 2006

Ungrouping classes and building bridges

Konrad is having problems with group work. However, I think one way out of his dilemma is to rethink the "group", not to eliminate it - the issue with group work in his context may have nothing to do with the nature of "groups" versus "networks of individuals" (which is a pretty weak distinction anyway). Instead there is a pair of intervening variables that makes group work unappealing from Konrad's perspective: authenticity, and motivation.

The groups that teachers work with are pretty arbitrary assemblies of young people with similar birthdays. In order to engage in group work, teachers have to design groups and tasks that illustrate something interesting and useful. However, doing this in a way that motivates is difficult. Doing this in a way that has some feeling of authenticity is also really difficult. One approach is to use some sort of scenario building and role-play - to in some sense make the groups in the class into something like a 'real' group outside the class, such as a construction team, or a government committee, or a bunch of designers and engineers at a factory.

Now, if instead of arbitrary age-range groups, you had to teach a class consisting of the archery team, or some other 'real' group within the student community, what would group work be like? Would it be so difficult to identify a group task, and to support their efforts to engage in it? The problems I think Konrad (and others) experience arise from the nature of cohorts in schools, not the nature of teams and groups as a general form of social organisation. Cohorts are communities of circumstance, not of practice or interest.

Also, on a direct practical level, there are ways to work with groups that reduces the flattening effect Konrad mentions when you re-integrate a set of groups; I've used de Bono's thinking hats method and that works pretty well.

A good balance of individual and group activity keeps things interesting. Don't kill group activities just because we like blogging and social networks and this particular technology is better at supporting this type of individually-focussed work (a concern Catherine has with the PLE generally, echoed by Juliette).

Oh, and bridges aren't built by networks of uncoordinated individuals with a shared need to get across a river (that looks something like this). They are built by teams of engineers, crane operators, welders, and the like coordinated by a project manager and a chief architect...

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