The Puzzle of Group Work


Four people completing round puzzle


Learning is social; group work is social.  But, is group work learning?  Teachers think collaboration will enhance their students’ social skills, complex problem-solving skills, and content exploration.  Group work begins as early as first grade, because students will need to work in groups in upper grades.  In upper grades, students work in groups to prepare for college work.  In college, students need to train for “real life,” so group work is essential.  I question how much truly collaborative group work actually takes place in “real life.”

Everyone has been in a group where one person did all the work (as doctoral students, we were probably that student) as others sat back, relaxed and got a good grade.  A college chemistry student was put in a lab group, where collaboration meant assigning sections of the work to individual members.  Every week, as the deadline drew near, the others had not completed the work, so this student would do it.  The next day, a team member quasi-complained that she had done all the work, and he wanted to pull his weight on the team.  He gave her a Starbucks gift card for helping complete the assignment.  After that, he rarely did any work, knowing that if he waited long enough, she would do it.

Teachers want to avoid this scenario, and often tell students to report others in their group who are not fully participating.  However, we teachers need to learn better ways to facilitate groups and teach students how to collaborate.  Too often, the teacher assigns a group task and expects the group-learning to happen independent of any guidance or instruction.  Or, at best, the teacher assigns each student a role, such as discussion leader, secretary, summarizer, questioner, etc.  This gives the group some structure, but still doesn’t teach students the interpersonal skills necessary for real collaboration.

New Research

Into this fray comes new research from Jordan and McDaniel (2010) which, in my opinion, illuminates the need to teach students how to work in groups.  While working on science/engineering projects, groups of 5th grade teams interacted about problem-solving and negotiating uncertain territory.  The researchers closely watched and later dissected the recorded interactions between group members.  They found that group members could give supportive feedback to help solve uncertainties.  This feedback would then lead students to further discussion, brainstorming, and new ideas to try.  On the other hand, students who received unsupportive feedback, such as chastisement or being ignored, either continued with their original strategy, asked repeatedly about their point of uncertainty, or cognitively removed themselves from the task.  I think this clearly points to the need for teachers to instruct students and monitor the way they interact in small groups.  Students must learn and master these essential skills, as their implementation can distinguish between collaboration being a successful learning experience or a failure.

For the girls

A warning to teachers comes in the example of Isabella, who is the only girl in a group of boys.  In her group, Isabella was largely ignored when she first tried to address uncertainties.  She persisted and forced the group to address her uncertainties, but was later described by the boys as “bossy” (Jordan & McDaniel, 2010, p. 27).  Another boy stated that her uncertainty, which was actually reasonable, was because “she just didn’t get it” (Jordan & McDaniel, 2010, p. 23).  Jordan and McDaniel note that “such negative interpretations of female students’ uncertainty are not uncommon for male classmates engaged in science learning” (Jordan & McDaniel, 2010, p. 27).  I have seen this same dynamic play out in a high school physics class, leading the girl to doubt her abilities and to make a career choice away from science and engineering.  Teachers need to be cognizant of this dynamic, and perhaps create single-sex groups in STEM classes or, at the very least, carefully monitor interactions in mixed-sex groups to make sure that this does not happen.

Implications for diversity            

As a teacher in a university-preparation English language program for international students, I will be making practical use of this research.  Many international students have not had experience with working in teams, and it is something that I focus on in my classes.  This gives me a new way to address their work—both how to express uncertainties and how to address the uncertainties of others.  This is essential for these students, because they will surely have many uncertainties with a new language and new subject-area content.

Jordan, M. E., & Mcdaniel, R. R. (2010). Managing Uncertainty During Collaborative Problem Solving in Elementary School Teams : The Role of Peer Influence in Robotics Engineering Activity, 00(2002).

Social Learning and Brain Research

Aimlessly flipping through the channels on my television, I can not find anything interesting to watch.  Ah, here’s Dr. Phil; let’s see what strangeness is going on now.  Soon I find myself caught up in the life-drama of someone I don’t even know, cheering, nodding my head and thinking,  “This lady really knows the answers” (I admit, maybe even say aloud).  This is the same feeling that I had reading Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems.  Social learning combines the standards set by the group with each member’s personal experience.  This experience can catalyze the group to further learning and increasing standards.  I cheered as Wegner talked about three elements of the social learning system:  community of practice, boundaries, and identity.

Community of Practice.

The learning that takes place in a community of practice is so strong because it reflects what brain researchers know about how the brain learns.  In communities of practice, learning takes place through “joint enterprise,” working together on a project that builds mutual respect and understanding (Wenger, 2000, p. 229).  The brain also has two ways of learning, which Caine and Caine refer to as spatial memory and rote memory (1990, p. 68).  Rote memory requires practice, but spatial memory are those things that you remember the first time they occur, those instant memories that are sometimes indeliably etched on our brains.  The spatial memory is obviously more efficient.  Communities of practice engage the spatial memory as colleagues work together, negotiating “competence through an experience of direct participation” (Wenger, 2000, p. 229).  This explains why we learn better in study groups or when working through a new software application with a co-worker.

Every community of practice has boundaries, and when different communities touch each other, learning occurs and tensions possibly mount.  We must bridge the boundaries in order to learn from each other (Wenger, 2000, pp. 233–234).  My workplace has two communities of practice—the faculty and the office staff.  We bridge these boundaries so that students have the best experience possible.  The office staff and the faculty have to negotiate the use of the computer system that tracks student scheduling and grades.  Staff should understand how faculty use the system, and the faculty need to know some of the logistics that the staff deals with.  For example, faculty want to have their class rosters several days before classes begin, which is not currently possible.  Staff need time to manually enter each student’s schedule, and this can not be done until language placement testing takes place.  On the other hand, staff need to understand that a four-day lag period, while it seems like a half-week to them, means 10-15% of the entire course for the faculty (we have a 40-day program with classes meeting five days a week).  We recently moved a faculty member into a newly-created position to bridge this boundary.

The identities of individuals are shaped by their experience:  we define ourselves by what we know and don’t know (Wenger, 2000, p. 238).  “Identity needs a place where a person can experience knowing as a form of social competence…their need to develop their competence is also part of their belonging” (Wenger, 2000, p. 241).  This mirrors Caine and Caine’s brain principle that the brain needs familiarity, as well as novelty and complexity.  The familiarity gives stability and anchors the search for meaning from the complex (Caine & Caine, 1990, p. 67).  The community of learning can provide this stability and comfort, as a home where the identity feels competent.  This allows the member to be willing to search for the complex and to expand her own personal experiential learning.

I think Wenger gets it right in his assessment of social learning, in light of both my own personal experience and the brain research highlighted by Caine and Caine.


Caine, R. N., & Caine, G. (1990). Understanding a Brain-Based Approach to Learning and Teaching. Educational Leadership, 66–70.

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems. Organization, 7(2), 225–246. doi:10.1177/135050840072002

**To learn more about Caine & Caine’s article about brain research, see my blog post “A View from the Past: Bridging Brain Research to the Classroom” from May 30, 2014.