For as long as I’ve been a student, I’ve been put into groups of four.
At the sound of the four ill-fated words “let’s break into groups,” I can sense other students’ discontent, daunting uneasiness and preparation for disappointment.
If universities were created to facilitate the passage of knowledge from one generation of thinkers to another, then why the emphasis on group-based learning? There are a lot of reasons why group work leaves a bad taste in the mouths of undergraduates. There is the faulty distribution of labor, the strain for cohesion and the unstructured work setting, just to name a few.
What is the pedagogical crux of collaborative learning? Why do instructors insist on breaking students into groups of four, when so many of us obviously hate it?
According to Jonah Lehrer (in a piece that wasn’t retracted by The New Yorker), Alex Osborn, a partner at Manhattan’s leading advertising agency B.B.D.O. published a book called, “Your Creative Power” in 1948.
Since then, brainstorming became the revered method of finding creative solutions to tough problems.
Brainstorming is about “using the brain to storm a creative problem … with each stormer attacking the same objective,” Osborn wrote.
One of the things that makes learning so difficult is the fact that we are constantly forced to deal with other people.
Group-based learning, or the honing of interpersonal work skills like “adaptability, communication skills and the ability to solve complex problems,” becomes all important especially in today’s tough economy. We’ve become seduced by the myth that universities as institutions are about yielding productive workers who boost the market economy — students who will one day turn into major producers and consumers in an overarching financial structure.
But higher education isn’t about mass-producing well-rounded laborers to run the wheels of a demanding workforce. It isn’t about socializing thinkers into productive members of society or making them polite citizens with good people skills, even if that’s what it incidentally does from time to time.
I agree with Gary Gutting when he says that if it were, it could be done much more efficiently and cheaply with trade schools and technical programs.
If college can still be about building a rapport with the ideas of the world, then group-based learning muddles that rapport.
Students entrenched in an uncomfortable social dynamic aren’t internalizing the ideas of the subject matter at hand for mental exercise. They’re too focused on navigating a new social playground, arbitrary finish lines and exhibiting efficient work habits for a grading professor.
When so much of learning occurs in a private place — the light bulb moments, the epiphanies that seem to come from nowhere — the inclusion of other people crowds that space and leaves little room for intellectual curiosity and personal wonder to flourish.
Especially in crowded classrooms, educators sometimes place a premium on groups as a method of peer review. Students who cannot receive constructive individualized instruction can at least receive localized feedback from peers.
However, with my own experiences in a four-man discussion group, students do the minimal work possible. They’re having conversations, not making connections with ideas. Four relative strangers are waiting for their turn to speak and are waiting to be done as soon as possible.
I understand the value of talking about ideas out loud to learn, but the kind of intellectual rapport that’s vital in academia cannot be manufactured. It certainly cannot be manufactured without the aid of an instructor.
Extroverted students who learn best by brainstorming and talking about their ideas out loud suffer because no one in a group is likely to be trained to give constructive criticism. Feedback rarely sticks because feedback from an unaccomplished peer carries little weight.
Shyer students, on the other hand, are reading ambiguous social cues, waiting for the perfect time to speak up.
It’s like the blind leading the blind. Students don’t benefit from working in structureless groups of four. We need moderators, intuitive instructors who keep education in a controlled environment: a space that’s safe and hospitable to dissenting ideas.
Communities of learning can develop organically, without contriving groups of four based on last name or seating chart. But it depends on an instructor with a gentle and intuitive approach to classroom management, smaller classroom sizes and students who arrive at the classroom already engaged and motivated.
Making sure society at large values these things are the musings for another column.
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