Do we learn better in a group or alone? Do we make better decisions as a group or individually? How important is it really to be a team player? It seems to be mostly assumed that we work and learn better in groups. People often think fondly of team sports or other group activities in childhood and adolescence, but did anyone ever consider the kid who was picked last for a sports team? What did that kid get out of team sports? Probably nothing.
Most of us can say the same. We’ve had great team experiences and we’re had poor ones. I believe the emphasis on team and group work has been greatly overrated. We can work together as a team as long as we have something individually to provide. Get a group of people with limited background knowledge together to solve a problem and it’s usually the loud mouth that wins.
The biggest reason for the effectiveness of teams in learning and performance, is actually, the power of autonomy. Having personal autonomy in what we do and how we learn is the most powerfully motivating force we know. Does anyone like to be micromanaged in their work? They most definitely don’t. Everyone wants to have personal control over what they contribute in their work and lives.
In this regard, teamwork is really about contributing what you know best. The best teams in business consist of a group of people from different functional areas, with each one contributing what they know best. A problem is best solved when a group of people can contribute something to which he/she is an expert on. It provides the best motivation and engagement for success.
In regards to learning, it is a similar fact. Students can work together in groups but only if they have the skills, background, and interest to contribute individually to the group work. Otherwise you have the same problem where the loud month wins, but it is that one or two students with the best background and drive complete most of the work. The others become the required but not valued participants.
That’s why learning in groups must be carefully designed, and it works best with older and more skilled people. Groups can also be self-selected. When you consider how people become teammates when playing games on the Internet, they are self-selected based on a similar interest and skill level with the game. For all the talk of great teamwork at powerhouse companies like Google and Facebook, these employees are highly skilled and were selectively hired based on what they can contribute to the organization. They were not put in teams randomly.
I would like to see more self-selection of group work within learning. With a smorgasbord of on-line courses available, many could be made available in colleges and even high schools. Students could sign up for the courses based purely on interest and ability. They could do group project work together, and be highly motivated in the process. A facilitator would be all that is required to keep them on track. Students could also self-select to work on projects in the school or community if a variety of them were made available. It could be a great way to harness the power of groups, much like how star athletes perform greatly when playing on a sports team together.
Chris Bernat is the author of Individualized Learning with Technology – Meeting the Needs of High School Students – a book about how learning can be individualized for older students, starting in high school and continuing throughout life.