It’s Time to Change the Way Group Projects Are Handled in the Classroom group projects classroom

I remember the routine by heart. “Now I want everyone to divide up into groups,” the teacher would say. Then all the cliques of friends, none of which I belonged to, would gather together, leaving me desperately looking around to find a group that might have room for a “hanger on.”

After this humiliating task of “breaking in,” the other kids would start talking, interrupting, and shouting over each other as they competed for the floor and the leadership role. Unwilling to shout or interrupt, I could not get a word in edgewise. By the time I would have formulated a thought, they would have moved on anyway, often without having resolved the issue I had the thought about. They would start off brainstorming about the project, but quickly sidetrack into tangents and socializing, wasting valuable time.

Finally, the teacher would clap her hands, reminding us “five minutes, everybody!” In this final rush, decisions would be made and assignments finalized without sufficient discussion or analysis.

Ultimately, the project would be presented — with or without my participation.

Meetings at Work Are No Different

Working in groups is said to better prepare kids for the adult workplace, which is most often organized around teamwork. I have never been an educator. I have, however, spent many years in various office-based workplaces. And I have to admit, the schools are right. There is a lot of similarity between the way group projects were handled in my classrooms and the way many adult work centers conduct their business.

That way is poorly. Take for example, the typical office meeting:

  • The meeting is called to discuss one or more general issues but there is no specific agenda.
  • The team’s leader fails to sufficiently control behavior and guide the discussion.
  • The dominant personalities immediately start talking over each other and interrupting as they vie for the floor.
  • The introverts aren’t willing to shout or interrupt, so we don’t talk at all.
  • Tangents and socializing sideline the conversation, wasting everyone’s time.
  • Inevitably, two people will conduct a deep analysis of an issue that involves only each other, holding the entire group hostage for another 20 wasted minutes.
  • Some people simply refuse to stop talking once they have gained the floor.
  • After several hours, the meeting dribbles to an end with little having been decided or accomplished.

A Better Way to Do Group Projects

Is there a better way? I think so, and it would start in schools. Successful group projects are already conducted in schools every day. Baseball teams practice without stopping to allow the pitcher and first baseman to argue over where to hold the post-game party. Choirs rehearse without singers spontaneously breaking into solos or the sopranos whispering and giggling in the middle of a song.

Every type of school group activity seems to have adult supervision, discipline, and an orderly agenda except one — academic projects in the classroom. When it comes to academics, we just toss the loose batter into an open oven and expect the cake to bake itself.

Too often, it doesn’t.

But what if we administered these projects more like the extra-curricular activities? What if, instead of just abandoning students to anarchy, we gave them the same standards of behavior and level of adult supervision as extra-curricular activities? What if we took the opportunity of group projects to formally teach kids how to work together and conduct a focused discussion? This would include a basic explanation of personality types, communication styles, group dynamics, rules, and roles.

And instead of a “participation grade” based solely on talking, each member would be given a “contribution grade,” based upon their overall contribution.

My idea of what this would look like would include teachers doing the following:

  • Assign group membership. Don’t force kids to choose each other.
  • Appoint a group leader from among volunteers. Don’t make them just fight it out.
  • Provide suggestions or a general roadmap for how to accomplish the group’s project.
  • Establish rules on talking like taking turns and raising hands. Interruptions, tangents, socializing, and monopolizing would count negatively towards the offender’s contribution grade.
  • Regularly remind students of the time and how much of it is left — not just near the deadline.
  • Be the rule enforcer, just like a coach or a choir director. Expect leaders to guide the discussion and approve assignments, but talking violations, bullying, or personality conflicts may require adult intervention, and sometimes the leader can be the worst offender.
  • If quiet group members are still too intimidated to express opinions and ideas, allow them to do so in writing or in person with the leader after the meeting is over.
  • Assign one member as a secretary to write up a short summary of the group’s meeting — including any written contribution.

This approach would demand more of teachers, but if they could pull it off, the payoff could be enormous. If only my group projects could have been done like this, they would not have been such a nightmare for me. If they were undertaken with this much structure and care, maybe introverts would face less discrimination over participation grades and be able to contribute more.

Just as important, extroverted kids would learn how to exercise focus and discipline when discussing a task under time pressure — skills that are necessary in the adult workplace but never specifically taught. Consequently, they are often lacking.

It can be argued that imposing this kind of structure, discipline, and supervision on classroom group activities may do a disservice to kids, because they may not find such organization and support in the adult workplace. This may be true, but it’s also a chicken-and-egg argument. Perhaps one of the reasons adults behave so poorly in meetings and group projects is that we have never seen it done differently.

I believe that the most effective way to accomplish any social change is to teach a new generation a better way. In her groundbreaking book Quiet, Susan Cain makes the business case for making schools and workplaces more inclusive for introverts. I would add that teaching all kids how to work together more effectively would benefit not just introverts, but all of us.

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