Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Group Projects: The Bell Has Tolled

A recent New York Times article exposed group projects in business schools as the frauds they have always been. When four or five students are assigned to produce one paper, the outcome should be obvious: at most one-fourth or one-fifth of the learning results, as opposed to the one-hundred percent learning of one student producing the entire paper. Many in groups who defer to others to do the work learn less. This is all done in the name of the division of labor and a simulation of the real world workplace. When I was in graduate school, some fellow students who were currently teaching, or ready to begin teaching, bragged about how the group project reduced their work load: eight papers to grade, say, as opposed to forty.

The Times article exposes other sins of business schools besides group projects, such as students not reading the text (or in some cases not even buying it) or skipping class except for exams. But as usual all of these issues have extenuating circumstances that need to be elaborated. Most of my students work twenty, thirty, or forty hours a week to pay for their union card while at the same time carrying a full load of courses. Some bright students who know they will do well in business explicitly say that they don’t give a hoot about grades—nor do I. And I sometimes tell my students I wish I could give them all A’s for the course on the first day of class, then anyone who wants to come back for the rest of the term to learn would be welcome. The college degree as union card is precisely what it is. All else is pretense.*

The group project, of course, also has its extenuating circumstances that need to be elaborated. It’s not as collectivistic as it sounds. It falls within the theory of cooperative learning and some form of it was used at the Dewey Laboratory School in the late nineteenth century and has been used routinely in nearly all Montessori schools for over a hundred years. The formal theory blossomed after World War II. If structured as a teaching and learning interaction among the participants, everyone can benefit, especially the weaker students.

In a setting where grades are required, the group process must be well structured and highly controlled by the teacher. The comments I hear from my current and former students, and my own experience as a member of groups when I studied for my MBA degree, testify that structure and control by the teacher are nearly always absent. In one class when I was a student, the instructor spent time balancing his checkbook while the students “worked” in their groups. On another occasion, the same instructor went home leaving us by ourselves to continue working on our group projects. After he was comfortably home, we students assumed, the lights of New York City went out for the second time in history—the blackout of 1977 had hit the Big Apple. Is “fraud” too strong a word for this kind of professorial behavior?

The group project in no way simulates real business experience. Most significantly absent in business are the head pats and chastisements known as grades. Further, there exists a division of labor within the groups, or “teams,” as they are usually called, with clearly established authority and skill-levels. Five students in a college classroom who have never met before have none of that. They are thrown into the fire and expected without guidance to survive. Typically, everyone in the group gets the same grade. And teams in business? Often the high performers are rewarded with raises and promotions. No educational system can offer such benefits.

In Montessori schools there are no grades. Younger, less experienced children learn from the older, more experienced ones. They learn by observation and imitation, and from instruction. The older children learn by leading, by setting good examples and by teaching. The process, as business people would say, is “win-win.” There is no complaint about slackers in the group. Slower students may take longer to digest the material with faster students enjoying the process of helping them. An “A,” a “B,” or a “C” does not depend on anyone’s behavior. Learning, not jumping through a hoop to get a biscuit, is the aim of Montessori’s cooperative learning environment.

Group projects and group cooperative learning have their place in education. Just not in the bureaucratically credentialed and grade-driven schools we have today.

*See pp. 159ff. in Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism for more on bureaucracy-based credentials.

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