Individual or group work? Removing the either/or

This entry is inspired by a conversation on Twitter during the keynote at the #ASCD13 conference. The keynote stated that, “In life, you have to learn from groups; that is how we solve problems.” (Possible Twitter paraphrase.) The resulting Twitter discussion questioned whether or not this was true. Is it possible that some of us solve problems better on our own? That some of us need to work independently? But if creativity and problem-solving happens in groups, how do we honour individual learning preferences? All great questions, and they got me thinking…

Is it possible that this doesn’t need to be an either/or discussion? Do we complicate things by feeling it has to be one or the other? I am imagining learning experiences that honour both. In fact, I see evidence of what I am proposing within the medium of Twitter itself. To me, it all boils down to a shared purpose- this is what makes a group a group. It doesn’t have to be about proximity or “doing everything together.” Instead, it is about defining a vision and a need and flowing between group and individual time to reach the purpose. We connect when we need to and we go into our own corners when it makes sense to do so. When I think about challenges I have had with students doing group work, it was usually because I was forcing collaboration when it wasn’t working or I hadn’t involved students in the shared purpose. So, it all fell apart. This is what we fear when we hear the term “group work.” We question whether or not students will learn to be collaborative in our classrooms. But they often have learned outside of school, and this is why I mention Twitter as an example.

My PLN on Twitter is filled with people with whom I share a common purpose: To make education and learning the best it can be. We collectively question practices and propose new ways to imagine learning. We recommend readings and reflect on what we have read. We ask questions and discuss answers. We are collaborating on a very large and important desire to make our system better. I hear often how beneficial a PLN is and I agree. It is “group work” at its best. There is as much diversity of thought as there is collective vision. There are several “right answers.” And…this is the important part…there is as much “individual work” as there is collaboration. As with all good group work, there is a time to think together and discuss and dream and there is a time to separate and experiment and craft and re-craft our own ideas into plans. I propose that this is how “group work” could work in a classroom.

What if we invited students to co-construct a common purpose? What if we invited time to share and discuss and time to work on their own? What if individual contribution was as important as group ideas? What if it was both? A few months ago, I wrote a blog entry about the purpose of learning and I refer back to it to reaffirm by belief that when we have a shared purpose, collaboration comes naturally. We can honour both the need to work on our own and the important skill of working with others. Let’s move away from either/ or thinking and embrace “both.”

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