Monday, April 02, 2007

Soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, ploughboy...

Who are you?

Let's say that the instructor waltzes in and announces that you're going to be working in groups. You can't call on your best friend in the class to help you; the instructor's choosing the groups for you, and the way you're all split up appears to be random. Oh great, you're stuck with Jessica. You heard about her. Giselle you don't know, except for the fact that her cell phone's gone off in class three times so far this semester. And then there's Dante. You've never heard him say a word. You're given five minutes at the end of class to meet with your new group members, to get to know each other a little, to exchange contact information. You've got a week and a half to put together the project just assigned, and you want to get to work on it as soon as possible.

As early as your first meeting, two days later, you notice certain interpersonal dynamics. You're focused and on-task (or at least you try to be), while Giselle is not. She gets up every five minutes to get a snack from the vending machine or call her best friend on her cell. Meanwhile Dante has started to work on the project, but he's off in his own world, performing computations that you don't understand and that he seems unwilling to explain to you. That leaves you and Jessica, and you find her to be (quite frankly) dumb as a box o' rocks. Indeed, almost every other sentence out of her mouth is "I don't know."

"Well, did you understand this one?"

"I don't know."

"What did Prof. Buxfizz say about this method?"

"I don't know."

"What in the hell is taking Giselle so long this time?"

"I don't know."

What good could come of working with her? You finally decide to peer over Dante's shoulder as he works away at the project's first problem. At least maybe you can learn a little by looking on.

Do any of these habits sound familiar? Chances are quite good that you've observed one or more of these personalities in group work you've done in class. Maybe you're Dante, maybe you're Giselle. Maybe you're the poor overtasked Jessica, or maybe you really are the monkey in the middle whose role I've given to you as our fictional observer.

Last week my Learning Circle colleague Darlene pointed out that when small groups convene, very predictable personalities manifest themselves. There are type-A leaders who take it upon themselves to see that everything's done right, often dominating the workload and shopping the simpler tasks out to the others. There are the absent slackers, who more often than not don't bother to show up. There are the silent types who are afraid to speak up, fearing they'll betray their ignorance and be laughed at. There are the dittoheads who go along with every answer uncritically, there are the speed-demons who just want to finish everything as quickly as possible, and there are the perfectionists who aren't happy until the seventeenth draft of the group's write-up has at last been produced in the optimal font-size.

What type are you? I've only recently (in the past couple of years) begun to appreciate that successful performance in group work really does require of one an awareness of the sort of persona one tends to take on in group get-togethers. (Likewise, it's not enough for me as a teacher to simply throw the groups together and say, "have at it!") To get a group up and running, you've got to do more than make sure there's a time available for everyone to meet: once all are assembled in one place, there's then the matter of getting everyone to contribute her or his fair measure, to the extent that each is able to contribute according to her or his talents.

What is your talent? What good do you typically contribute to a group endeavor? Can you ask yourself to contribute your share of your positive energy, and can you challenge yourself to minimize your adverse behaviors? Can you bring yourself to contribute something else that's usually left inside of you?

I mentioned in my last post that throughout my schooling I was always the "get it done" guy. I'd rather do all the work myself than let the slower folks in the group take control and botch it up. Of course, having now spent a long time on the "other side of the glass," I realize that this attitude probably rendered all group exercises practically useless for my teammates, but hey: I got what I needed out of it, and everyone got to share in the good grades. Win-win, right?

Now in group work I challenge myself to stay quiet, to not dominate. I contribute, but I wait for contribution from others. I make sure my piece is heard, but I do what I can to incorporate others' views with my own, and whenever I can I paraphrase, reiterate, recount, others' takes on things to make sure that I'm understanding them properly. I offer help when it's needed and do what I can to facilitate the others' learning. If I find myself in danger of dominating the conversation, I try to shut up.

What if you were Jessica? Could you challenge yourself to speak up? This must be hard! Though it's somewhat awkward for me to sit on my hands on not go as quickly as I know I could if working alone, I realize that it must be downright terrifying for a shy and unsure group member to risk the derision of her peers by admitting that she doesn't know what in the hell is going on. Last semester in MATH 365 there was one group in which three of the group's members were decidedly more self-assured than the fourth. This fourth frequently confided to me about how difficult it was to tell his friends to "slow down! I can't understand things as quickly as you all can."

And Giselle, what could she do? Perhaps her challenge at the outset would be simply to stay in the moment and keep her focus. And you, the nameless observer in the comedy above? Could you, perhaps, challenge yourself to be the one to bring the group together? Could you make it your place to call "time out" and reconvene the group to say, "all right, folks, we're just not on the same page on this one. Can we lay out a plan that'll work for everyone?"

I don't know. I don't think there's any one right answer. Every situation is different.

What do you think? I'm really curious to know what's on your mind.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Personally, I’d rather work alone because, in a sense, I like having control over things that I create. That does not mean that I do not realize and appreciate what comes from good group work. I’ve had math classes in the past where groups were a key role in the curriculum,
and I’d have to agree that these personality types mentioned are rather standard. I suppose that preference has a lot to do with the type of person. For some people, groups provide energy; for others, it’s analogous to the flushing of a commode.

Let there be a group of five people, of which there is a Dante, myself, and three others of undefined personality different from the defined two.

Step one: Elimination of Dante
Step two: Assume role of Dante (explanatory type, mind you)
Step three: Gain respect of MY group
Step four: Blow the project away
Step five: What to do with the body?