Quiet please! Introverts and our love affair with group work

Posted by: Kylie Budge, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

An upper corridor in the Washington National Cathedral

Quiet Halls (cc) Wikimedia Commons. Photographer: Ryan Linton

Do you ever stop to think about why we’re asking students to do group work? That’s right — why? The truth is we really need a good rationale for it or we shouldn’t be asking students to work in groups to complete a task or project or solve a problem. There are some very sound reasons why we should think carefully about this when designing learning activities and one of them just happens to be introversion.

Let me explain.

I was recently alerted to this fascinating TED talk by Susan Cain via a fellow educator and colleague on Twitter. My decision to click on the link was well rewarded.

In her talk Cain makes some powerful points about the case and place for introverts in society. ‘Solitude matters, and for some people it is the air that they breathe.’ She talks about the role of introversion in stimulating creativity: ‘There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.’ As Cain also points out: solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

Of interest to me as an educator is what Cain calls ‘the madness for constant group work’, which seeks to displace introverts and make them feel alien for their difference from the dominant status quo of extroverts. I found this particular point strangely compelling for at least two reasons:

1.    I am an introvert.

2.    Even though I am, I’ve probably been guilty of forcing students to do group work without thinking through the ‘why’ factor thoroughly enough.

In effect, I’ve been capitulating to the extrovert status quo and been an agent in getting students to as well, even if there was no clear learning need and even if it meant crushing the spirit of introverts within the group.

Why? — you may well ask.

Well, because like many I think I’ve swallowed and absorbed the widespread notion that doing group work must be ‘good for you’. It’s a way to learn the skills of teamwork and to encourage students to communicate and negotiate with each other. All of this still holds true of course, but it is especially powerful in a learning situation if there is an extra need to work in a group to complete a task or solve a problem.

However, what Susan Cain and other introverts like her are asking us to do is to stop and consider the impact that this might have on students who are the quieter, internal, solo players of the group. If we insist on designing group task after group task, how does this affect those students? Of course, most of us would probably offer a mix of learning activities – some group, some paired, some solo. But even then we really need to consider what the learning need is for the group work we’re including in our curriculum design.

Ask yourself why it is that students need to do that task or project in a group. If there’s a good reason for it — for example, your aim is to encourage students to hear a range of opinions and have to negotiate to complete a complex task — then yes, it’s probably a good way to design the learning. If, however, we ask this question and find ourselves wondering about the real reason a group is needed for such a learning task, then perhaps we need to reconsider our thinking and redesign it as a solo task instead.

The Centre for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) claims there are three good reasons for group learning:

1. Peer learning can improve the overall quality of student learning.

2. Group work can help develop specific generic skills sought by employers.

3. Group work may reduce the workload involved in assessing, grading and providing feedback to students.

Choosing one of these reasons and then deciding to design a group learning activity is not where thoughtful learning design ends though. As CSHE points out, one of the big issues for group work can be a lack of perceived relevance or clear objectives and, as many of us know, this is where group work can start to become very messy. If you decide that there is a clear purpose for a group task, then the point of such an activity (and its group context) needs to be made explicit to students too so that they know why it is they are working in a group. In the group task, consider strategies that make use of the contributions from the more introverted members and how you might make this transparent — for example, asking group members to report on how the work was done and by whom.

What Cain’s TED talk highlights for us is that there are other students in our classes (and colleagues in our workplaces) that don’t respond well to this kind of learning if it is overused and if there is no real need for it. It’s important to acknowledge those students in learning design and be clear about the reasons for the kind of learning activities we design as educators. We need to encourage students to find out who they really are and honour their particular personalities and learning styles rather than suppress them.

In Australia at least, it’s that time of year when many of us pause and reflect on what worked well in our teaching throughout the year and what might not have panned out as we expected. It’s worth considering the role of group work in that reflective mix. As Cain points out ‘in the long run, staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters.’

Do you have ideas and thoughts on group work or designing learning activities? We’d love to hear about them in our comments below!

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