Gifted students’ preferred group size is usually a group of one.
As in, they’d prefer to work alone nearly all of the time.
Frankly, they often have very good reasons for this.
No matter how good the reason, however, it can be problematic in a modern classroom, as group work is increasingly common. We can debate the pedagogical benefit of this another time, but let’s just assume that you need to get a gifted kid to work in a group, but he/she is reluctant.
What should you do?
How to Get Gifted Kids to Work in Groups
There is more than one possible solution, all dependent upon the actual reason for the reluctance. Let’s explore some common reasons for resistance.
Gifted students often object (rightly so) to working in groups when their grade is dependent upon the work (or lack thereof) of others.
Teacher must ensure that they have set up the activity so that the students know that their evaluation, whether formal or informal, is solely dependent upon their own effort and work.
Students do not have control over other students’ work, and they should never be held responsible for it. This patent unfairness is the primary reason gifted kids resist working in groups, in my experience.
Unfair Division of Labor
Sometimes, the labor for the project is not divided fairly. Students quickly figure out who cares about their grade and will do more than their fair share to protect it.
And then the unfairness ensues.
Even if the grading appears to be set up fairly (see above), if the division of the labor isn’t clearly set out, there will be manipulation and exploitation, or at least the possibility of them.
Students will blackmail other students with friendship or the threat of its removal in order to get the hard worker to do their work for them. I know. Six-year-olds can be cruel.
The bottom line is that teachers must ensure that the division of labor is fair and not subject to manipulation.
Some people simply prefer to work alone. I am frequently amazed at the number of educators who believe (wrongly) that there are visual learners and are willing to accomodate them, but who don’t believe (wrongly) that there really are people who work best alone.
I mean, if you’re going to be wrong, at least be consistent.
You can read more about what I’ve said about that here.
I prefer to work alone much of the time, and yet I’ve somehow managed to stay employed, so saying that people who prefer to work alone should be forced to work in groups because that’s what it’s like in the “real world” is a fake argument.
In the “real world” people with high ability who are willing to work hard can very often choose careers that suit them. If you’re going to force kids out of their preference, have a better reason that this “real world” of which you speak.
Lack of Skills
We also have to make sure that we teach kids the skills they need to work in groups. Having skills in science is not the same as having skills working in small groups on science assignments.
Skills for small group work include how to:
- listen (bonus points if the person can tell you’re listening)
- take turns
- disagree appropriately
- come to consensus
- ask questions when we don’t understand (in an effective way)
- be concise in your speech
We can’t expect kids to engage in quality, productive conversations if they’ve never been taught how. So simple, yet so complex.
And after you teach your students these things, please feel free to teach them in the vortex of hate that is social media.
The Whole Social Thing
There’s a social dynamic that exists in small groups that can be uncomfortable for gifted kids who may have no cognitive peers in the group. Teachers can lessen this likelihood by making sure that gifted kids have the opportunity to work with cognitive peers, too, as well as in mixed ability groups.
Poor Group Division
Ad hoc division of groups (“Find a partner, kids!”) can be a horrific experience for kids on the social fringe, who are introverted, who don’t really want to be in a group in the first place, and on and on.
Please don’t do this to students. Carefully plan any group experiences that are going to be taken for a grade or evaluation. Carefully make sure that kids don’t feel like breaking into groups or pairs is a popularity issue. Never allow anything resembling bullying behavior. Broker even casual groups so that all kids feel included and wanted.
Successfully running small groups in class is a skill on the part of educators, and we can’t outsource that responsibility to our students.
General Unease Due to Previous Experience
By the age of four or so, lots of kids have already had poor group experiences. They may have been burned and not forgotten the experience. When a kid has had a previous bad experience, you may have some persuading to do, some trauma to overcome.
Part of this will be identifying what caused the previous experience to be negative and making sure systems are in place to avoid a repeat.
There are more reasons, but I think these are the most common.
Should you force a student to work in a group?
So for the $50 question: should you force students to work in a group? Well, that depends.
How badly do you want to die on this hill? Is it really mission critical? Do you want to use all of your credibility points on this?
If it’s mission critical or a sign of a power struggle, then it may be worth the extra persuasion/effort.
Before you go down that road, however, you absolutely must find out why the student is resistant. This requires open communication and trust. Use the list of why students don’t like group work as a starting point.
What’s Your Theory?
Your theory about why the student resists group work will guide your intervention. You must be absolutely certain your theory is correct, or you could very easily end up doing more harm than good.
Say, “I’m noticing you prefer to work alone, rather than with the other kids in the class. Have you had bad experiences in the past? Can you tell me about it?” And work from there.
You may find out that the child is being asked to work in a group with a kid who’s bullying him at lunch, who taps her pencil, etc.
You may find out that the child has been told no one wants to work with her and is preemptively protecting herself.
Needless to say, you don’t have this conversation while you’re dividing kids into groups. It’s got to happen before.
Ask parents about it. You may find that children on the spectrum, with high social anxiety, or some other mental health issue need extra support. Be gentle with parents. If teachers approach it as if the child is somehow defective, it won’t go well. Be sure to share what you have done to make the groups fair and equitable.
Parents must understand that working in groups is something that administrators expect teachers to have students do, so simply saying that your child doesn’t like it is not acceptable.
If the teacher has set it up well (see my advice above), then your child should be open to participating. Being successful at “doing school” often involves breaking out of our comfort zones. This is true of everyone at school, teachers included. Your child may never like working in groups (I never have), but it’s simply part of the deal. Par for the course. The way the cookie crumbles.
(Read this article I wrote on anxiety with Dan Peters to learn how simply avoiding anxiety-inducing situations is not the answer).
If group work is necessary, but for some reason you can’t manage it in a given situation, consider a couple of alternatives that may be appropriate:
- Pieces that come together as a whole: Can the students work on their parts of the assignment alone and then come together briefly to assemble the project?
- Digital collaboration: Does a digital platform available to you allow for collaboration without students actually breathing on each other?
- Choose: Can you ease students into groups by sharing a few upcoming group assignments and offer them a choice of which one they’d like to do in the group, allowing them to work alone for the others?
Rubrics for group work should include the expectations for the social skills within the group, and students should receive feedback on this. They should have clear feedback on what they’re doing well (“I noticed how you were patient in listening to others’ opinions.”), and also on what they need to develop (“I’m wondering if next time you could consider making sure the person knows you’re listening, like by nodding your head.”).
If they are only graded on the work itself, they may not realize where they need development in the social aspect.
Group work is probably here to stay, and educators can make the experience more positive for students and encourage reluctant groupers!
Other ideas? Suggestions?