We’ve just finished a unit with our year 7s which was project-based and culimated in a presentation to the class. The best group was then chosen to advance to the “semi-finals” where they present in front of a few members of SLT and the best groups from those presentations will present to “the outside world” in the form of a local business who wants to learn from our best students.

Now let me preface my upcoming rant by stating that I think businesses and schools working together is fantastic and helps our students understand the importance of success and business in myriad ways. I also think collaboration, when done well, really aids in learning and gaining extertise and the best plans. Projects and collaborative contributions are very important.

However, poorly considered classroom-based projects, especially in schools with many students who are word-poor and lack cultural literacy, simply widen the gap between the “smart” kids and the “struggling” kids. It widens the gap between those with “high targets” who often have supportive families and who are “plugged in” and those with low targets (or no targets because they immigrated after the SATs were sat) and/or low cultural literacy and low reading ages–to exacerbate a culture of helplessness and failure in the very kids we must reach.

Truly, I could have passed on the winning team without actually doing the presentations. I followed the scheme to the letter–largely because I didn’t have time to edit and refine like I try to do–and produced a “best” group. Thing is, I knew they’d be the best when I set it up. I knew they’d do something good and be proud of themselves. And everyone else knew they’d win as well. How does that bode with the other groups, I wonder? It’s one thing if competition is close; it’s another thing when everyone know who’s “smart” and who’s “dumb.”

Question is, did anyone learn anything in this process–besides the general reminder of who’s-dumb-and-who’s-smart reinforcement? Each group assigned a presenter, a team leader (the only one who could pass information back to the teacher), the researcher and the designers. But what happens when you have a less confident student in the group, who doesn’ t know enough about designing, or about researching design, to do his job correctly? The presenter or leader will take over. Usually, one student per group takes over and does most the work, and the others try to look busy whilst feeling inferior and almost helpless in the face of the dominant mind at work.

There’s a time and a place for group work.

The longer I teach, the more I believe that place is not in many classrooms, especially when you have mixed ability classes of young students who lack confidence and, most importantly, knowledge.

The only way group work can work is if all students come to the table empowered with enough knowledge to contribute, and that takes time and careful thought to set up! 


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