I Never Did Like Group Projects…

Group projects. Does anyone (besides teachers) actually like them?

I hated group projects when I was in school. I hated scheduling my work around other people’s schedules, relying on people who could not always be relied upon, and having to let go of some interesting angle on a topic because no one else shared my enthusiasm. My 12-year-old daughter says she hates group projects because if you end up with the kid who talks nonstop or doesn’t listen to directions or can’t focus in your group, you’re stuck with the consequences (ranging from disapproving glares from the teacher to a poor grade) despite doing everything in your power to do your own work well. My friends who have gone back to school to pursue advanced degrees or make a career change say that group projects are even more of a nightmare now that they are older students. Not only do they once again have to deal with the inevitable slackers, but they also feel that group projects are a huge waste of time. When you’re taking classes in between caring for children and a home and also working full- or part-time, you just want to put your head down and do the work. These grown-up students, stretched to their limits already, really don’t need to add group meetings and logistics-oriented e-mails and corralling of slackers to their already busy schedules. (Most of them already spend an inordinate amount of time corralling slackers, a.k.a., their children.) They just want to learn the material, take the tests, write the papers, get the grades, get the degree, and go to work.

So lots of people hate group projects. Yet teachers keep assigning them. Why? To foster collaborative skills. To help students identify and take advantage of their and others’ strengths. To prepare students for the cooperation necessary for success in the workplace.

Except, as author Susan Cain pointed out in a New York Times op ed piece this weekend,

…there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted…They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

Cain goes on to say, “Culturally, we’re often so dazzled by charisma that we overlook the quiet part of the creative process.” To illustrate, she cites Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Jobs is lauded for his charisma and marketing genius, yet Wozniak’s solitary late-night toiling to engineer a personal computer is equally responsible for the company’s success.

As someone who hates group projects, is an introvert, and likes few things better than writing, alone, in a quiet house, with only my snoring dog for company, I find Cain’s argument against “groupthink” compelling, encouraging, and refreshing. As my writer friend Adam McHugh (author of Introverts in the Church) points out in Cain’s article, questioning the centrality of charismatic, extroverted leadership has implications for churches as well:

Many mega-churches feature extracurricular groups organized around every conceivable activity, from parenting to skateboarding to real estate, and expect worshipers to join in. They also emphasize a theatrical style of worship — loving Jesus out loud, for all the congregation to see. “Often the role of a pastor seems closer to that of church cruise director than to the traditional roles of spiritual friend and counselor,” said Adam McHugh…

The truth, of course, is that it takes all kinds to make the world go ’round. The world can be changed by a group of colleagues feeding off of each others’ energy and ideas, or in front of a glowing laptop screen where a solitary writer struggles to find words worthy of describing some quiet revelation.

But I think it might be time for teachers to realize that group projects are rarely the sort of energizing, ennobling, enriching experience they want them to be, and are instead often a frustrating, tedious time-suck for the most conscientious students.



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