The Social Value of Groupwork

As published in Your Black Education

by Norah Sarsour

Using group work at particular intervals of the learning process provides students the opportunity to explore their roles, define their capacities, and develop their skills as a collective. While teachers also see the group and evaluate  students according to the group’s role, it is easy to overlook the social benefit when group work becomes a mere collection of individual tasks. A student’s trip through the corridors of education is a lonely one, after all, with evaluations, standardized examinations, and assessments comparing individuals to derive a meaning for success. This sets up individualized thinking and ignores a basic aspect of human behavior. People work in groups, society exists in collections, and humans are indeed social beings. Even when there is an opportunity to use group work strategies, skills, social acceptance, and cohesiveness may be hard to build.

Surprisingly there is something natural that comes to students when they are in a group. Not everyone can just start speaking at the same time, for example, so social rules begin to form. These are more than likely established non-verbally, in that speaking in turn almost comes naturally and is different from being called upon in the regular classroom setting. The members of the group also learn to share time, and this even becomes evident when each student is speaking and how long they speak. Even what is being said is streamlined to address the purpose of the group, rather being interpersonal. The opportunity to group work is an opportunity to do what adults have to do every day. And yet, adults have even become prone to working in a group through individualized tasks, rather than for their own social well-being or that of the group. When it gets heated at work or in the family, adults talk out of unison, talk about nonsense, and talking about everything that destroys the group. At what point do people decide to switch group work, to individual competition within a group?

Social unrest has become a regular headline across race lines, especially with a focus on classroom management, social justice, and what society considers as proper behavior. The most recent examples are of police officers or teachers physically taking down students. Group work is not an on and off switch that an authority figure flicks, but one that should exist as a social contract between teacher, student, and administration at all times. It is not an hour of collaborative art projects. It is a belief that working holistically preserves the happiness of all involved. With recurring news of students possibly misbehaving, and administration or security not reacting properly, society is scrambling to label the party that is “misbehaving.” Breaking down the group then, into who is proper and who is not, exemplifies to students that there are sides to an issue, rather than an issue being worked on as a collective for the sake of bettering that collective. All that matters now is who is right and who is wrong, rather than why this is happening.

When looking at this issue from the standpoint of social workers, group work in society arises at the stage of containment and when the management of “issues” becomes necessary–otherwise there is little proactive group work. As social and educational services look at business effectiveness, making the marks, and fulfilling hours, the priority of developing and empowering individuals to work as a cohesive group diminishes. Constructivism takes a hit across society as a result, and the less group work students have in the classroom, on the playground, and in the home, the less capable they are in sculpting their very own reality. Instead, their roles become truncated to the individual realm. The individual’s placement in the community is the hot discussion, rather than the placement of the community within the individual.

Using their own terminology and speech begins to diminish, and creating a whole and unified purpose diminishes. They essentially cannot become the arbiters of their own situation. Group work can construct realities. But if everything is so individualized across the functions of each stage of school management, that this transfers into the way students and teachers practice group work, it is no wonder that the reality of students is not known to a teacher or a police officer who acts emotionally or violently. Why? Because no one planned for freak accidents or incidents to be able to adjust and act responsibly. And even more disturbing is that students probably cannot articulate their own function and role as a collective.

Group work should and can fulfill academic objectives while students build their life skills. Student voice becomes an actual reality, and each individual is an expert of his/her context as he/she constructed it.

Hence, it should not be about what is right or wrong, if that female student was acting belligerent, or if the police officer who dragged her from her desk acted violently. Instead, the discussion needs to focus on why is this our reality, and how can it be changed.

A conversation like that would be the epitome of real group work in which all participants can realize how meaning is socially constructed. The less powerful, disenfranchised context reflects a narrative of oppression versus those more dominant.

Group work then, for these contexts of poverty, police brutality, gang violence, unemployment, and essentially instability, becomes all the more valuable as a setting for building understanding. For the disenfranchised, after all, bicultural socialization is extremely important. In the classroom, it is indeed possible to integrate skills of understanding other contexts while maintaining awareness of one’s own. Students need to be ready to bring up their own particulars when they are in a group. Their recognition as unavoidable members to the group gives their voice power.

Whether relating literature to our everyday lives, having students address a problem through a science project, or working as a group to solve a math problem, the academic objective is not the only goal. It is getting individuals to no longer think individually, to allocate accountability, created shared responsibilities, and most importantly, to support one another as a collective. That is what makes groups empowering, and with the violence American schools endure, it is obvious how weak the group has become.