26 April 2011

Group Work and Group Think

With the emerging dialogue in the popular press and blogosphere about fostering creativity in business, there is no lack of desire for collective creativity. Take this recent quote by Bruce Nussbaum about looking beyond fostering "design thinking" and instead encouraging "creative Intelligence":
I am defining Creative Intelligence as the ability to frame problems in new ways and to make original solutions. You can have a low or high ability to frame and solve problems, but these two capacities are key and they can be learned.... It is a sociological approach in which creativity emerges from group activity, not a psychological approach of development stages and individual genius.
Yes, group activity can provide the impetus for better framing of problems, which can lead to original solutions. But creativity is the "end result of many forms of intelligence coming together, and intelligence born out of collaboration and out of networks," to quote one of my co-workers, Robert Fabricant. When we collaborate with different kinds of thinkers, sometimes from different cultures and backgrounds, we individually struggle with ingrained behaviors that reduce our likelihood of manifesting creativity.
One of the more disturbing memes I’ve come across in college is the idea that somehow group work is superior to individual effort, particularly in the realm of creativity.  In fact, professors show a cult-like devotion to group work.  Most of the reasons professors offer for the need for group work smell strongly of bovine fecal matter.

The most common rationale for group work is that students need to learn how to work in groups.  Frankly, this reason is simply insulting.  I’m not a sociopath or retarded.  I’m actually quite capable of interacting with others when I need to.  Thus, it’s insulting to insinuate that, as a legal adult, I do not know how to work in a group even though I passed kindergarten with flying colors.

Within this rationale is the implicit goal of acclimating students to yielding to group norms.  This was generally an issue for me since most of my classmates were idiots.  I generally refused to follow others in the group when they proposed asinine ideas or tried to divvy up the work in ways that stuck me with a large amount of work.  Fortunately, I was quite skilled at winning power battles, so I was pretty much the leader of every group I was in, with one exception.  Incidentally, I earned an A on every group assignment.  The lesson I took away from all of this is that a successful group is one that follows my lead.

Even with that, though, I still hated group work because it was generally a waste of time.  For the most part, I was quite capable of completing an entire group’s worth of work by myself in half the time it would have taken the entire group.  Group papers were especially wasteful because I spent more time editing the papers, begging for sources, and formatting the paper than I would have spent if I simply wrote the paper myself (and I know this for a fact because I was ghostwriting papers for other students at this time).

The thing I disliked most about group work was that it was generally unnecessary.  It was as if professors were turning a one man job into a six man job.  The reason for this, of course, was that professors would have fewer papers to grade.  Thus, a large amount of my time was wasted because my professors were too lazy to evaluate their own students individually.

Another thing I dislike about group work is that it allows some to ride on the coattails of others.  This was especially true when professors decided to select groups themselves.  No one had any choice in group mates, so the lazy ones could slack off and profit from the efforts of others.  Why professors thought this was a good idea is beyond me.

Finally, the whole notion that group leads to better results is laughable on its face.  There are specific factors and conditions that enable some groups to achieve better results than individuals, and professors almost never replicate those conditions.  Successful groups need to have people who, for starters, know what they’re talking about.   They also need people who have self-discipline.  Most groups in college lack people with those characteristics.  As such, most group work consists of lots of complaining and shared ignorance.  This isn’t exactly a recipe for success.

Also, professors try to make things more profound than they actually are, but that’s a post for another day.

As it stands, group work is an unfortunate trend that is handled poorly by academia, and yields counterproductive results.  It is often the mark of a lazy and/or stupid professor.  It should be avoided at all costs.  Kids these days are already lazy enough.  There’s no need to capitulate to the worst among them, particularly in such a Marxist fashion.

6 comments:

  1. The current emphasis on “collective creativity” in business reflects a more multicultural and socialist approach to conducting business and is consistent with a more feminist ideology that is being introduced globally. That said, much of its popularity is due to the rise of the theories of learning proposed by Lev Vygotsky that have permeated the educational environment for the last 40 or so years. The basic theory is that a person can achieve more when interacting with peers or more knowledgeable others than he can when acting alone. It is through social interaction that students share their knowledge and each benefits from the process, including the more knowledgeable others. The greater the diversity of the group and the more knowledge that is shared, the greater the result. Thus group work has come to be considered a way for students to learn more and achieve at higher levels than simply by working alone.

    Your argument against the use of group work is self-defeating. They more you argue that it is useless, the more you confirm your professors’ reasoning. For instance:

    “The most common rationale for group work is that students need to learn how to work in groups.” This is the argument in favor of group work presented by your professors. You argument against:
    1.“This was generally an issue for me since most of my classmates were idiots. I generally refused to follow others in the group when they proposed asinine ideas or tried to divvy up the work in ways that stuck me with a large amount of work.” This is actually evidence supporting your professors’ view that you (and others) do not know how to work in groups.
    2.“Another thing I dislike about group work is that it allows some to ride on the coattails of others.” Again this demonstrates a lack of ability to work in groups. I agree that this is an unfair outcome and that there will always be those who try to skate by with little effort, but it is illustrative of the professors’ point.
    3.“Finally, the whole notion that group leads to better results is laughable on its face. There are specific factors and conditions that enable some groups to achieve better results than individuals, and professors almost never replicate those conditions.” It is not the professors’ job to replicate those conditions. That is the job of the group. One cannot learn to work in groups if the professor organizes it and delegates the work for the members. They can only do that themselves. That is not to say that the professor cannot provide assistance. He is after all a group member and a more knowledgeable other.
    4.“The lesson I took away from all of this is that a successful group is one that follows my lead.” This is an obvious confirmation that you did not learn the lesson of the professor i.e. how to work in groups.

    Your professors may or may not have understood the theory, but they obviously failed in their attempt to teach you the value.

    While group work is not necessarily Marxist, the educational theory that supports it is. Vygotsky worked in the Soviet Union conducting most of his research during the 1920’s and 30’s though he was eventually suppressed by Stalin. His work gained popularity in the West posthumously in the 1960’s and 70’s and he remains quite popular in academia. He is most well known for what he called the Zone of Proximal Development which separates learning from development. He proposed that a child could learn material above his developmental level when assisted by peers or a more knowledgeable other.

    I’m no big fan of group work in education for many of the reasons you list. But it does have some value and can be useful.

    TDOM

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  2. The only time I had group work in college was Advertising Campaigns class where it actually did reflect the "real world."
    Class divided into two competing "agencies" where the work was divvied up into research, marketing, media buying, creative, PR, etc.
    And team members evaluated each other, so one truly had to pull one's own weight for a good grade.

    If group work in academia reflected how it works in the real world, it would face less criticism.

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  3. I too was intensely annoyed with group work during my graduate school years, for all the same reasons you mention. That the impetus for such group work is Marxist comes as little surprise, given the prevalence of people having such views in academia today. You mention the fact that groups allow slackers to benefit off the work of others and you have no idea why professors thought this was a good idea. May I suggest affirmative action is a reason? Group projects where participants don't evaluate one another will artificially boost the GPA of underperforming students at the expense of the performers. And isn't it wonderful that good students should shell out thousands of dollars a year in tuition, only to be required to "teach" the lesser students without any reimbursement? The professors get paid, and the students do their jobs. What a racket!

    The theory that groups will produce better results because diverse talents and opinions will contribute to the final product is just that: a THEORY; there is no evidence to support such a claim. Quite the contrary, decisions rendered by committee and consensus are usually dysfunctional and unappealing on many levels. As a case in point, see most legislation. In my experience, the only way the groups worked was when one or two "strong men" took over the project and did most of the work, delegating minor tasks to the simpletons and slackards. As evidence of the success of this more masculine approach, study any successful business that ever existed.

    Isn't it a tenet of Marxism that there is no absolute truth, only perception? Then another use of group work is to muddy the truth. Since it's highly doubtful all members of a diverse group will see and understand things the same way, it's quite likely their product will reflect this.

    If educators were using groups because they truly wanted to improve their students they would use the system LordSomber's class used: student grades are an average of the project grade and the performance grades given by the other group members. I used to repeatedly bring this up with my professors, and their answer was always the same: this is just how we do it. In other words, "I'm the professor and you're not, so screw you."

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  4. @TDOM- I had a longer comment, but blogger ate it and I don't feel like retyping it. Suffice it to say that I wasn't trying to imply that all group work is worthless. I was simply pointing out that most of the group work I experience in college seems counterproductive and the situations in which it is used seem highly unrealistic. Plus, the goal of group acclimation is wrong. People should be individualistic, not herd animals. There are instances where group work is productive and realistic, but this combination is incredibly rare in the academic world.

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  5. @Lord Somber- There were two occasions in which I felt group work was warranted and productive, and in both cases it was related to marketing. The first was for a marketing class; the second was for a maagement class and the goal was to write a business plan and provide a marketing campaign. Also, in both classes, the groups were competing against one another.

    The other 20+ group projects in which I've participated mostly existed as a way to reduce the professor's workload. Of course, they explained that the group work was for our benefit even though it was obvious that the situation was unrealistic and the work was counterproductive.

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  6. @Paul- you bring up another good point as well. Group work is often quite Marxist in its approach, particularly if the professor starts focusing on diversity. The obvious sexism and racism aside, this form of diversity is quite shallow, presuming that physical differences are somehow important in decision-making.

    It also assumes that major differences are helpful in fostering good ideas. I've found this explanation to wanting because, in my experience, depth is more important than breadth. By this I simply mean that it is better to have six experts from the same (relevant) field than six experts in six different fields. The idea is to build on relevant information, not reinvent the wheel. Of course, sometimes the wheel needs reinventing. Most of the time, though, it just needs improved.

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