You call them groups, I call them teams – or vice versa: Whatever the case, this mode of teaching risks exposing ourselves as learners and valuing that exposure

I both hate groups and love being part of learning in groups – I also love and hate the complex work required of all the learners participating in team and/or group based learning as part of courses/modules. I am never more a learner in a classroom setting than when as a teacher I engage us in group or team work. And that’s why these modes of learning scare the guts out of me and my students – the teacher has to be a learner, too – and appear to be (if not be) comfortable about learning how each particular cluster of students will operate in meeting task demands assigned to a group or in planning for and managing team tasks to create objects that showcase learning.

A bit of semantics before I plunge into responding further – as I distinguish between groups and teams when I set up courses, it seems important to point out those distinctions.

I see groups as emerging for those moments in class sessions when clusters of 2-5 students come together to take on a specific task and purpose that will showcase their learning/the application of studied material to specific problems/cases; primarily, I see groups as forums for digging into questions of analysis and venues for deepening discussion for complex problem solving) with the small groups being places where students learn how to take risks in thinking, perspective shifting, expanding analysis and questioning how they’ve come to develop as well as wonder about ideas. As students work in groups, they and I get to see minds at work, offering feedback at moments of conflict and moving into questions or corrections in hearing misapplication / misinterpretation of resources.

For me, teams are formal, long-term, coalitions of people who come together to seek out and share, weigh and evaluate, synthesize and create new ideas in order to address, solve, resolve, move forward in understanding and addressing a complex problem in a particular (and specified) context. I don’t always see teams at work but students do show me their teams at work – and how their teams work – in writings and conversations and annotating drafts (cognitive and affective, individual and team commenting) of materials that showcase their learning.

Two experiences allowed me to trust groups as a learner:

1. That first grade teacher who believed students and teachers alike needed to work in groups rather than to work on groups. To work in groups meant – even in first grade – we took note of dissent and difference and disagreement as part of coming to an understanding; sometimes that meant we reported two possible answers to our teacher as a result of group work: a majority and a minority report if you will. From that, the whole of the class –teacher included – would be invited to talk about how having two options would shape our actions going forward. That experience of groups transformed my life – made me fit for thinking even as it unfitted me for the plug and chug expect of group work in the majority of my US public schooling experience that followed.

2. Those political science college professors who emphasized student-formed team work as central to studying for exams and teacher-planned student groups as key to the development of individual projects. Whatever their personal political persuasions – which were public in practice and clearly professed in classrooms so that tacit won the day over implicit in their teaching, our learning, and our skills at nuanced, animated, open discussions – some sort of group and/or team learning was a shared classroom practice.

Not so that we’d be better in our jobs – not even if our jobs were linked to politics, but so that we’d be better in our thinking about public policy then in campaigning for change and/or voting for political candidates. They wanted us to be good with group work and team based creation of knowledge because we were going to be part of shaping – even transforming – the worlds in which they would age, into which their children would grow new ways of being, thinking and working. We’d have to adapt to work worlds, yes; and having skills associated with group and team work would, they knew, be what we’d draw on in the world we couldn’t know until we encountered fully the many wicked problems – some lovely to solve, some pernicious, each always growing toward new possibility.

Groups provide a testing ground for thinking. Teams are places where testing is only a beginning as teams must expand to “meaning making” or co-creation of knowledge and new insights from information they’ve gathered, reflected on, tested and applied. In groups, students can do the work that Jane Fried – in an article about bridging intellect and emotion in learning and teaching – describes as “separating facts from cultural assumptions & beliefs about those facts,” and engaging students in “shift[ing] perspective” as they draw on course reading and writing assignments (even in math and science) to complete learning tasks assigned to groups.

In teams, student learners must wrestle with – additionally – what Fried identifies as “perhaps the most difficult [practice] to learn, that of differentiating between personal discomfort and intellectual disagreement.” In groups we see that there might just be multiple ways to a solution if not also multiple solutions. In teams – when we are working in collaboration rather than on a collaboration – we are called to reckon with differentiations and distinctions as part of higher order thinking required for complex problem posing as a key component to complex problem solving. In teams, the winners might shape the directions taken in composing team materials/reports/narrative, but the dissenters will also be able to name how they have shape a contrary analysis as part of providing a complex and comprehensive picture/product/report.

Now, to pare this into a illustrative narrative – less verbiage, more examples. Next month…


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