Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Group projects in real life

The media is almost as infatuated with the idea of large, hands-on, scientific collaborations as it is with the idea of cooperative, hands-on learning in the classroom. We see this most recently in a front-page article in a recent New York Times Science Section: a puff piece on the career of Eric Lander, who went from the "monastic" world of esoteric mathematics to the collaborative world of molecular biology, medicine, and genomics.*

Of course, there's a connection between these two objects of media infatuation. One of the most commonly cited justifications for group projects in K12 classrooms is the increasingly collaborative world of STEM.  And one of the most common critiques of my book is that it overlooks the purported fact that most of today's professionals work in groups.

I take pains in my book to lay out (twice) the key distinction between collaboration and cooperation--a distinction so essential that I also included it as an index entry ("collaboration vs. cooperation") and will once again excerpt some of the relevant passages here:

There's an important difference, people forget, between cooperation and collaboration. Yes, many modern mathematical and scientific puzzles are large enough that multiple scholars attack them simultaneously. But they do so not by divvying up the pieces, working independently, and only reconvening to present and tweak one another's solutions. They collaborate, but they mostly work separately, not cooperatively. (p. 42; italics as in the book).
In more cooperate settings, a single person is typically in charge, assigns specific tasks, and sends people back to their cubicles. Indeed, it's the cubicle, not the conference table, that predominates in most offices. (p. 194).
In the group activities that predominate in today's classrooms, in contrast, students are supposed to sit together, work together, and help each other out throughout the entire process--not just during periods of brainstorming or of combining their respective results.**

There are other key differences between the K12 ideal and the professional reality.  The former is a mixed-ability group assigned by the teacher in which all the students get the same grade. As blogger and economics professor Bryan Caplan points out in a recent post entitled How to Fix Group Projects:
If we really wanted to use group projects to prepare students for the world of work, then, we'd totally change the incentive structure. Away with equal status, equal rewards, and democracy! Instead:

1. The teacher would begin by selecting the best students to be team leaders.
2. Team leaders' grades would be based on their group's performance.
3. The team leader, not the teacher, would grade his own team members, using a budget of points based on his group's overall performance.
Such an incentive structure, Caplan argues, will result in grades that (like real-world raises and bonuses) reflect performance:
Since the team leader wants to maximize group performance, he has a strong incentive to reward performance and punish its absence.
To improve the system further, the teacher would demote underperforming leaders to the ranks, promote the best-performing non-leaders to leadership roles, and allow quits and firing.
Caplan acknowledges that not everyone will cotton to his scheme:
Many people will object that team leaders might "play favorites." Clearly some would. But at least they'd pay the price: Team leaders who reward incompetents will get lower grades themselves - and have trouble retaining talent (and their leadership positions!) if there's repeated play. In any case, if we're trying to teach people about the real world, isn't learning how to handle and cope with favoritism a vital skill?
Another objection might be that team leaders would be uncomfortable giving unequal grades to fellow students. Fair enough. But at least leaders would pay the price for their own squeamishness. And once again, they learn a vital skill: to put your feelings aside and judge people on their merits.
But, thinking again in terms of real-world incentives, Caplan acknowledges that teachers have "less than zero incentive" to teach these particular real-world skills via these particular real-world protocols.

*A key exception to this trend is this past NYTimes Weekend Edition's front-page article on Groupthink, which I will be writing about later this week.
**The Groupthink article suggests that, at least at certain companies, the collaborate-by-divvying-up model is shifting towards the cooperative-by-sitting-together one. While I'm guessing that the collaborative model still predominates (especially in academia, where people do still have rooms of their own and bosses can't force them to "inhabit open office plans"), were I rewriting my book in light of this article, I would acknowledge the trend and specify that the most effective of today's workplace collaborations involve "divvying up the pieces, working independently, and only reconvening to present and tweak one another's solutions."


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I tend to agree with you about the ineffectiveness of groups in schools (see my post http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2012/01/16/where-does-learning-happen/ ).

Academia tends to have a mix of private offices, cubicles,, and open-plan offices, often (like in industry) assigned according to status. Last year our grad students redesigned a cubicle-based office into an open plan one, and it has seen much higher use as a result (http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/psb313/ )

Obi-Wandreas, The Funky Viking said...

Hence the fundamental disconnect between school and the real world.

In the real world, it is the end product which is the purpose, and employees are a means to that end. An adult can only make a living by providing something which is of value to someone else. Anyone who does not provide sufficient value to justify their position will not retain their positions.

In schools, that dynamic is completely reversed - the person doing the work is the end product. You are therefore unable to remove those who fail to perform, since you are responsible for their performance, regardless of how much or little effort is expended on their part. A project like this could be run as a competition or an advanced group, but not as regular classwork.

Katharine Beals said...

"In schools, that dynamic is completely reversed - the person doing the work is the end product."

Agreed. That's precisely it. And I agree that this is completely inappropriate as regularly class work.

However, many schools are also claiming to be using group work in the classroom to prepare students for group work in the work place, and they're also touting the virtues of experiential learning--learning X by doing X. So, taking this to an extreme, one could make a case that Caplan's scheme serves both these goals, even with the students as the end products.