How much collaboration is too much?

There were a few times when I sat back at the end of a day of teaching and thought I don’t know if I’d want to be a student in my own classroom.  The reason for this horrible realization?  There was just too much group work going on, especially in mathematics.  I often felt as though my students were “working” in groups, but weren’t functioning well in them.  It sometimes seemed as though one or two kids were doing the lion’s share of the work and the rest of them were just along for the ride.  There were times I’d assign projects in writing workshop (e.g., picture book units of study or the solar system research papers of 2008) that involved a team of writers working on the same project.  While some partnerships functioned well and produced a final product where responsibility was truly shared, it often seemed as though one student did more of the work.  (Had I been a kid in my own class, I would’ve been the one stuck with doing most of the work.)  Finally, there were times when my students would discuss novels in book clubs and it seemed as if they were all saying the same thing.  As I walked around and listened into the conversations, my (conferring) teaching point often revolved around the need for everyone to have their own ideas and to share them with others rather than being a yes-man.

The cover of the Sunday Review section of The New York Times this past weekend was an article, “The Rise Of the New Groupthink.”  As a communication major from college who spent a semester taking organizational communication, I knew exactly what groupthink was.  In fact, there were a few times over the years that I had explained the concept of groupthink to my students and charged them with being engaged in it. Hence, I was extremely curious to read what Susan Cain had written about the ways our society’s obsession with collaboration has led us into groupthink situations in the workplace and in schools.  One of the many things she asserts is that “people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom away from interruption.”  (Click here to read all of Cain’s article.)

When writing workshop is running properly, with a ten-minute mini lesson, extended time for independent writing, and a five – ten minute share session (plus time for one-to-one conferring), we honor our students by giving them time to create pieces of writing on their own.  I’ve worked with teachers who have told me their students were goofing off during independent writing time.  I was told they just couldn’t handle 30 – 40 minutes of independent writing time.  My response is always that students have to work up to extended independent writing time.  They have to learn how to manage their time by building up to longer stretches of independent writing time.  If young writers aren’t taught how to use independent writing time efficiently, then it doesn’t serve a purpose.  One way to know kids are maximizing independent writing time is by listening to their groans when it’s time for share time because they need more time to write.

Our writers must know how to collaborate, which is where strong writing partnerships and honest, respectful share sessions come into play.  In order to avoid the pitfalls of collaboration that Cain discusses, it’s important to remember writing workshop must be a balance of independent work time, one-to-one conferring time, peer conferring, and group share time.

Finally, groupthink can also occur during collaborative curriculum planning sessions.  I’m sure you’ve been in one of those types of sessions where everyone seems to be thinking the same way except for you.  It’s hard to speak up when everyone thinks about something in one way and you seem to be the only one who is holding out.  Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist from Emory University was quoted in Cain’s article as saying, “when we take a stance different from the group’s we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection.”  Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”  However, even as hard as it is to go against everyone else, it’s important for us to use our voices to speak up when the rest of the group is planning something that might not meet the needs of our students.