Groupwork Groupthink

I just returned from Mensa’s Annual Gathering in Portland, Oregon, where I spent five days surrounded by smart people, including dozens of smart kids. It was challenging and fun and exhausting.

We ran a focus group (well, my best friend, Patricia Bear, an LPC, ran the focus group) with our teens around the pool at the Doubletree Hotel last Friday night.

One interesting thing that came out the focus group was the desire the kids had to learn how to work in groups with kids who are less intelligent than they are.

They need this information for two reasons:

1) too many teachers grade student work based on the product of other students, and

2) it is the default for many gifted kids to do the work of the entire group rather than see their grades suffer or fight a losing battle with kids who don’t care.

Can I just say for the record that this is as much a teacher problem as a gifted kid problem?

If you are a teacher, please stop assigning mixed ability groups to do projects and then grading kids based on the work of others. I was a teacher. I know. We do not like it when we are held responsible for the work of people over whom we have no power or influence.

This is not a kid problem. It is a group dynamic problem. The easy solution is that teachers can divide the work of the work of the group into roles that are pre-assigned and graded independently.

Alternately, students can choose roles that may be worth different values dependent on the effort/time they take to complete. I have strong feelings about this after watching my own children spend entire Spring Breaks and Christmas vacations working on group projects that were no more a group effort than a solo climb of Mount Everest.

But what if my child’s put in a group and the teacher doesn’t read this website? What then? Here are some strategies:

1) Make a connection. We have a harder time letting down people we care about (in general – my mind is racing with exceptions, but this is generally true). To forge a connection, the group can come up with a name. There is something about a name that creates a team mentality. For example, if your child is working on a group project on the country of Mexico, he/she can suggest that they call themselves the “Mexican Jumping Beans” in a casual way (“Hey! We can be the Mexican Jumping Beans!”).

2) Ask for extra. Ask the teacher if he/she will consider allowing the student to privately submit an analysis of what work was done by whom for a separate assessment of his/her own efforts. One of the kids in the focus group said that it would have been better to take a “B” than to do the work himself. That can be hard, but if a child knows that the teacher will give feedback to the child on what he/she actually did, it can make it easier to accept a lower grade than one would normally be comfortable with.

3) Surrender the power. Gifted kids don’t think they’re better than everyone, they just think they have better ideas. Parents and teachers should role play how to share ideas without sounding overbearing and arrogant. We know this even as adults. If we’re working with a partner who dominates us with forceful ideas, our natural inclination is to surrender control and become passive. In student groups, this passivity leads to the gifted kids doing all the work and wondering what went wrong. How can this dynamic shift? Phrase suggestions as questions (“Should we divide this up? Who would like to do this part? What do you think I should do?”). Don’t automatically take the “hardest” task. Everyone works best at optimal challenge – what I call Goldilocks Challenge Level (more on that next post). Just because one kid isn’t as smart doesn’t mean that he/she isn’t capable of the task. Learn to give good feedback. Rather than criticizing when something goes wrong or undone, kids can learn to say, “It looks like that was more challenging than it looks like. How can I help with the next part?”

4) Get guidance. When a problem seems to be arising (before Defcon 5), the student should go to the teacher with this type of question. “I am working in my group and we are having xyz problem. We have tried this and this, and this has happened. What is our next step?” Always say what has been tried and what result you are looking for. Do you want the teacher to intervene? Do you just want a suggestion? Make your expectations clear so the teacher doesn’t think that the student is just trying to get the teacher to solve the problem for him/her.

5) Learn to take the “B.” Grades are arbitrary and capricious. They are subjective and diminish internal motivation. However, we seem to be stuck with them, and so we must teach our children that they are not the only indicator of success. By asking, “What did you learn from this project?” rather than “What grade did you get on that project?,” we can help kids separate their learning from their earning. We also can ask them to do a little self-reflection by asking, “If you were designing that project, how would you do it differently? What could you have done better if you were to do it again?”

Group work is part of Learning 2.0, and it’s not going away – in school or in the modern workplace. We can help kids learn to manage themselves within groups even without spectacularly insightful teacher oversight.

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