The Social Value of Group Work

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 functioning of the group and evaluate the students according to the group’s role, it is easy to overlook the social benefit of group work as a mere collection of individual tasks. A student’s trip through the corridors of an education is a lonely one, after all, with all evaluations, standardized examinations, and assessments done to evaluate students as individuals, comparing them to one another. 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. Group work is not used necessarily as much as teacher centered instruction, and as a result, those skills and social acceptance of cohesiveness may be hard to build.

Yet 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 be established. These are more than likely established non-verbally, in that speaking in turn almost comes naturally and is different from being called upon. 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 everyday. And yet, the problem is adults aren’t always doing this for neither their own social well-being nor that of the group. Adults today are talking out of unison, talking about nonsense, and talking about everything that destroys the group.

Social unrest has become a regular headline across the race lines, especially recently 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. With recurring news of students possibly misbehaving, and administration or security not reacting properly, society is scrambling to label the party that is “misbehaving.” There is an obvious disjoint that is being communicated to students when 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 reality, using their own terminology and speech to create realities, and essentially cannot become the arbiters of their own situation. Essentially, group work can construct realities. But if everything is so individualized across the functions of each stage of school management, it is no wonder that the reality of students is not known to a teacher or a police officer who acts ignorantly. And even more disturbing is that students probably cannot articulate their own function and role as a collective.

Group work 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 that 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 needs 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 work, be empowered, and reach an understanding as a collective. That is what makes groups powerful, and with the violence American schools endure, it is obvious how weak the group has become.

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