Group work? You’re fired

20th November 2015 at 00:00

Even when you know it’s designed and edited for maximum friction between people selected purely on the size of their egos, The Apprentice remains a prime example of the trouble with group work.

In primary schools, group work is idolised as a vital component of classroom progress, endorsed by colourful displays made out of 30 handprints forming phrases like “Together we are a masterpiece”. Obviously we need some group work – children need to learn to get along with others and work together – but I’m not convinced the academic benefits ever match the social ones.

Take our recent design and technology day: we took 62 children, added approximately half a ton of cardboard, glue, wood and masking tape, and asked them to construct a bridge to set specifications. They were given a budget sheet, reminded that points would be awarded for planning, style and team effort, and let loose in groups of their own choosing.

The results were fascinating. Within 30 minutes, the floor had disappeared beneath oceans of corrugated cardboard and empty Pringles packets. One group had used up their entire roll of masking tape decorating a single pillar which then collapsed.

The pillar wasn’t the only casualty. As the morning wore on, teams fractured, splintered and, in one case, collapsed completely as bickering children vied to get their bridge-building visions the thumbs-up.

By morning break, at least half a dozen children had informed on teammates who were “being bossy” or “not sharing the scissors”. Quieter children with sensible ideas had been shouted down by bolder souls who were leading everyone in the wrong direction; a couple of children looked like they had opted out entirely.

Determined to give teamwork a chance, we operated a policy of non-intervention as far as possible, reminding children that they had to listen to each other and emphasising the importance of working up a design first rather than wondering why a bridge resting on one empty yogurt pot and a blob of Blu-Tack had a tendency to tilt.

By mid-afternoon, time was up and we gathered to judge the efforts. The results were mixed. Some children were on their third or fourth model; some had yet to finish their first. There were a few roaring successes: one group composed almost entirely of quiet, shy children had worked brilliantly together all day and come up with a strong, stylish model complete with detailed design plans and costings. A group of boys who had been at each other’s throats at lunchtime had managed to produce a cardboard structure that held all 28 of our class dictionaries.

Did they learn anything? Possibly. Would I like to teach every lesson through group work? No. It would probably kill me. And, after all, some of the greatest human achievements were solo efforts – and a great many world leaders clearly didn’t get there because of their team spirit.

So before you sign up to the “two heads are better than one” mantra, remember that sometimes two heads just get on each other’s nerves – and waste an awful lot of masking tape.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

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