For my son’s PE/health class, he had been assigned to work in a group with about two other boys to put together a project on treating wounds. This project had been going on all week. He and his good friend worked together after school on a writing portion of the project. Another boy was to put together a visual presentation.
Well, on Friday he came home to announce that his group failed the project, and he was feeling pretty disconcerted and upset. Apparently, his good friend took home a copy of the written portion of the project, and it was his job to bring it to school on Friday to present. The boy who was to put together the visual portion of the project–well he didn’t do it, or he forgot to bring it.
I’m sure there is a learning experience here–about how sometimes in life people you rely on goof up and forget, or goof off and don’t pull their weight. But was this learning experience worth all the time it took? Or the stress and potential bitterness it caused? Does this particular group strategy help kids better master the subject matter they are learning?
Few of us act alone in the real world. Most things are done with the help or ideas of other people. Group projects are great practice for high school, college, and real life, when you will probably have a job that requires working with others. Right now, group projects can be fun and they often allow you to do a bigger, more interesting project than you could alone. With group work, you can actually learn more in less time.
Group projects also give you a chance to get to know kids you might not otherwise know or talk with — maybe the quiet kid in the third row, the boy who lived down the street when you were in kindergarten, or the girl you’re sometimes scared to say “hi” to at recess.
Group projects are also a great way to practice skills you’re not so sure of. For example: working on a deadline, staying organized, or being patient. And if you’re a little nervous talking in front of a group, a joint project can help you become more comfortable with it.
But as this website also points out, group projects can be stressful because someone may end up doing all the work if the rest of the team can’t quite get it together.
I very much understand the value of kids learning to work together to complete a project. But I wonder if teachers are relying on the group project strategy too much, or employing it in situations that are not ideal.
I don’t remember doing many group projects in school at all–way back when. I have a vague memory of doing one or two of them in a seventh grade social studies class, when we studied ancient civilizations. And, I don’t remember it being stressful, though I’m pretty sure I lucked out and was seated at a table with other smart girls (yeah, I was a smart, focused student in school) who were all motivated to do well. No slackers.
I’d say my best preparation for the adult workplaces I’d eventually find myself was being involved in high school theater productions. Putting on a show, whether you were the star, the student director, or part of the back-stage crew, was very much a team effort. You had to learn to show up, be ready with your lines or your back-stage equipment, to do things on cue, to see your responsibilities as contributing to the greater whole. I’m sure kids learn similar team skills by participating in other sorts of team activities: team sports, Scouts, debate team, music.
And, maybe herein lies a key to a kid and teen enjoying a positive, educational, enriching group experience: the project involves a group of students who are all committed to its success. That’s because they are interested in the subject, and because they choose to put themselves in a situation in which they engage with it.
Kids join extracurricular sports, arts, and other group activities because those activities interest them. They even become passionate about them. They get to stretch themselves physically, intellectually, creatively, socially. They want to do well at it, and they like being around other kids who share this common interest–and even passion.
So, probably, the best setting for kids to do group projects are not in classrooms, but outside of classrooms, when their participation is voluntary. Still, I can see group projects working in certain academic settings, in elective classes that the kids choose to take–or in specialized core English, math, history and science classes that kids take not just because they want to get college credit but because they are interested in the topic.
Recently, my son started an elective home ec class. He is interested in learning to cook. Yippee for me! (Actually, he and I spent yesterday with my sister, a former middle and high school foods teacher, preparing a six-course family dinner–pork tenderloin, creamy polenta, salad with pear dressing and goat cheese. My son put together a really exquisite “mile-high” chocolate cake, learning all about sifting, double-boiling chocolate, and the chemical reactions of baking soda, baking powder and salt in baking!) But, back to his home ec class and its relevance to this group project discussion: As my sister explained, and as I remember from middle school home ec, he’ll end up working in groups in the kitchen. And, I can see that working out just fine.
He wants to be in that class, and putting together a meal can lend itself very well to a group effort. Yesterday’s dinner was a group effort among the three of us, and maybe herein also lies another key to a successful group project. It has to be a project that naturally, organically, lends itself to a team effort.
I’m not sure a health class lesson on treating wounds was best served by a group project. For one thing, we’re talking about health class. With all due respect to the teacher and even to the topic–yes, it’s important for kids to learn to lead healthy lives–health class is one of those mandatory courses all students have to take but generally don’t care that much about. So, you’re not going to get the kind of commitment involved in making a group project pull together.
For another, we get back to whether this lesson was best suited to a group effort. Dividing up that lesson into a written and visual portion–sure, it can be done–but that structure seems artificial and contrived. It’s a division of labor and structure for a presentation that I suspect was created merely for the sake of doing a group project, rather than for helping kids better grasp the subject matter.
So, those are my gripes and theories about school group projects. What has been your experience, or that of your kids? And, if any teachers want to share their thoughts, please do so.