Group Identity (Part Eight)

A book with important lessons for students

I didn’t realize that this commentary would turn into so may individual installments. I am already up to the eighth! But I have definitely been enjoying going through this speech, which I gave at a conference in 2007. It has reminded me of many of the experiences I have gone through in my decades of teaching. 

This installment will continue with a discussion of the curriculum and more specifically what happens in classroom instruction when an institution focuses on group identity. If you want to go back and start from the beginning, you can access the first installment here.

            Classroom Instruction

The idea of group identity has also infiltrated classroom instruction, including how a course is taught as well as what specifically is taught. 

For one, the idea that the group trumps the individual has led to the popular classroom activity known as collaborative work, sometimes fondly referred to by many students as “organized cheating.” 

Collaborative work is the darling of every administrator. When an administrator visits a classroom, he or she loves it when the class is working in groups on some project or other. These teachers have groups of students working together creating a poster about what they have learned about the oppression of the poor in Rigoberta Menchu’s book or giving a performance on what it feels like to be a pronoun. 

Speech

I wish I were kidding. 

Unfortunately for students, these projects often require working together outside the class, which is nearly impossible at all levels of education. When people have busy lives and many commitments, it is difficult to get a group of people together for a school project. 

This is true in elementary school, where parents must also be involved in the coordination, and it is true in college, where many students work, do not have transportation, or have a full load of classes to focus on. Teachers know this, and as a result, they devote class after class to working on the project, eating up instructional time. And the students usually end up chopping up the project into pieces: Marie does the summary. Joe does the characterization. Ana does the discussion of theme. And Jake types the report. This is hardly collaborative and typically results in a disjointed report that no one is happy with.

Yet in administrative evaluations, these teachers are praised for conducting dynamic, exciting, innovative classes.

Lazy teachers also love group work. It cuts down on preparing lessons for class. It is much easier putting students in groups and letting them figure out the material on their own rather than trying to lead an engaging, enlightening class discussion. And it takes a lot less energy. 

But students aren’t stupid. Ask any student who has had to do collaborative work in a classroom. Or how about in here? How many of you have participated in group projects? And how many thought it was a good learning experience? How many hated collaborative work? [These questions were directed at my live audience.]

Chances are that if you groaned, that is because you were the one enslaved by the group, having to do the entire project yourself. Isn’t that the way it always works? You know that your grade is dependent on the hacks you got stuck with. And chances are, if you are a good student, the teacher purposely put you in a group with the goof-offs, hoping that maybe your hard work would rub off on them.

How many teachers ever put all of the A students in one group? The B students in another. The C in another. And those failing the class in yet another, all by themselves? It doesn’t happen.

Speech

Oh boy. I tried this. Part of the problem with this kind of collaborative work is determining who should be grouped together. They are multiple theories on that, and I am no expert on the topic because I rarely assigned group projects and never studied it. 

But I did learn that putting one A student, one B student, one C student, and one D student in a group is not helpful at all. The A student is pissed, and the D student is completely disengaged. The B student is reluctant to challenge the A student. And the C student often feels like proving him or herself, offering lots of time-wasting chatter. 

Creating a group of all A students, all B students, all C students, and all D students goes exactly like you would think. The A students finish in a matter of minutes. The B students may take a bit longer. The C students don’t necessarily understand what they are supposed to be doing and waste a lot of time trying to figure out the mission and the procedure. The D students are distracted and never even get to the work of the project.

“A” students hate this, understandably. To maintain their “A”, they must receive an “A” on this project also. And do you think they are going to risk letting their grades hinge on the work of the B, C, or D students? No. So even if all participate, the A student is apt to redo much of the work to guarantee his A. And of course, when the students in the group see that he is going to just do it all over himself anyway, they decide they do not really have to work that hard after all. It is a free ride, and they will get the “A” on the project as well. Individual contribution is irrelevant.

Speech

I am fairly certain that everyone reading this has had similar situations when it comes to group projects in school. In fact, I cannot think of a single time that a serious student has told me that he or she loves group projects. If you are one of those people, please! Send me a note. I would love to hear what you liked about group projects that doesn’t include reasons such as they are more fun than regular ol’ boring classes, they are much easier in terms of academic rigor, or they burn up class time.

I do want to add something here though, even if I do digress a bit. But I think it’s important. I spent a number of years teaching business writing to upper level college students (juniors and seniors). And in that class, I did discuss and even assign a couple of group projects. But I did so only because students told me that so much of their business classes revolved around the group project. And I can understand that. Certainly, in an office, people are required to work together. Of course, the experience in the classroom is not necessarily perfectly duplicating the office experience. And lest someone ask how I would know that, I had an eight-year career in advertising before I started teaching. So I have worked in my share of offices and worked on my share of collaborative projects.

But I got so many complaints about these projects from my business writing students that I decided to help them change their thinking and thus their approach to such projects.

In addition to the business writing textbook I assigned, I also had students buy John Maxwell’s The Five Levels of Leadership. We worked our way through the book, and I spent much of the class encouraging students to be leaders. The feedback on both the book and the class was always overwhelmingly positive. Students said no one had ever talked to them about not only how to be a leader but more importantly how vital those skills are to being successful – successful in all roles throughout life, whether in our families, in our neighborhoods and communities, or in our jobs and careers. Of course, working to be a leader requires the complete opposite thinking of a victim. And colleges seem to instead be peddling in victimhood.

So I challenged students to go into a group project assuming they would be the leader. As they learned, leaders don’t simply announce their leadership and then tell everyone what to do. No, a good leader earns the position, by building relationships and trust, being productive, listening, helping others, casting a vision, convincing others to get on board with that vision. They treat each member of the group as an individual, not as just like everyone else. That just scratches the surface of what is required for leadership, but it’s a start. And I encouraged students to play this role not to merely get through the class, but also to practice their leadership skills in the real world, in a place where the cost of such attempts are small. To consciously observe how people react to them and to have the opportunity to adjust.

The stories students came back to me with were astounding. Yet empowering. Most could not believe the impact they were able to have on their groups. One student had been complaining because one of her business professors assigned groups at the beginning of the semester and told them they had to remain with the same group for the entire course. She and one of the members of her group continually butt heads in constant conflict. It was a miserable experience for her, and she was seriously concerned about her experience in the class and on the impact on her grade. 

After our discussion on leadership, she was determined to turn things around in that class. The following week, she came bouncing into class, in disbelief but excited to tell me how everything had changed. She would never be friends with this other student. Or even ever like her, to be honest. But she was able to change the relationship and to get this student to actually listen to her and use some of her ideas. She was shocked that she was able to change the dynamics simply by changing her attitude and looking at the group as an opportunity to hone her leadership skills.

Those are the moments I miss from teaching!

Stay tuned for the next installment, which will investigate the suggestion that students can only understand and relate to literature written by authors of the same ethnic background and gender as they are and about people just like them. 

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