Can a group project be valuable and productive? Of course. Are most group projects valuable and productive? Hardly.
1. In school, group projects often culminate in group presentations, and while many group presentations are quite tawdry, teachers often justify group presentations on the grounds that, “The best way to learn something is by teaching it.” I’m not entirely sure I buy this, but even if I did, the idea that four students who write down a bunch of notes about the Vietnam War and then taking turns reading those notes to their classmates are “teaching it” is absurd.
2. Tell me if this sounds familiar: A certain teacher gives his class three straight class periods to work on “group projects.” For three straight class periods, the students “work” while the teacher reads, grades papers, or surfs the web while sitting at his desk. The students laugh, chat, and occasionally pick at their project like a tasteless meal. Occasionally, the laughing gets too loud, the teacher looks up and says, “Stay on task, everybody,” and the class quiets down for a few minutes. Not every “group project” is like this, but many are. If you’ve ever walked into a classroom and it looked like the students weren’t doing anything, there is a good chance they were working on a group project.
3. You could argue that the ability to carry out “group projects” is important to the survival of civilization, but the “group projects” of the eighteenth or nineteenth century were group projects by necessity. You can’t build a house on your own. You can’t fight a war by yourself. You can’t operate a twenty-acre farm without help. The sort of “group projects” which are productive are “group projects” by necessity. Likewise, certain activities around school need to be done in groups. Twenty students are needed to decorate for the spring dance. One girl can’t do it all on her own. However, you don’t need four people to give a five-minute presentation on chapter two of your history book. It’s a one-person job. Turning a one-person job into a four-person job is as bureaucratic as it gets. Sending four people to do a one-person does not teach teamwork, it teaches that teamwork is a sham.
4. “Teamwork” is not an actual virtue. It is a relatively recent corporate virtue, which is to say it is a business strategy devoid of moral content. Humility is a virtue, but there are plenty of arrogant teams. The more Americans have said about the importance of “teamwork” (which is largely a side effect of our need to justify the absurd amounts of time and money we spend on high school sports), the more atomized our society has become.
5. Real “group projects” don’t exist to teach teamwork. The invasion of Normandy was a group project, but the point of D-Day wasn’t to teach teamwork. Real “group projects” exist to create homes and farms, save lives, establish communities. However, nothing which exists merely to “team teamwork” can actually teach teamwork. If a teacher puts four students on a certain group project, that project should actually require four students. If three or two students could handle it, the teacher is wasting their time.
6. Students regularly try to get their teachers off topic, which doesn’t bode well for their own ability to stay on topic (or on task), especially when working in groups apart from a teacher’s oversight. If you absolutely must assign group projects, the projects should be done outside the classroom. Class time given to group projects is largely unproductive—lots of fat, very little meat. However, students are more precious with their own time than with class time.
7. If you absolutely must assign group projects, put diligent students together. The industrious students should be their own group, the students who love social media should be their own group, the boys who barely pass every quiz should be their own group. If you create mixed groups—with hard workers, slackers, and chatters—you will not teach anyone teamwork, you will simply teach the hard workers to be cynical.