Group Work Is Hard

Lessons Learned from #MSFTEduE2

How many times have we used or heard the following phrases

“We are doing group because it is something you are going to have to do in the real world.”

“When you get a job you won’t be able to pick who you work with.”

“This is a group project where you can pick your groups/pick some/pick none at all”

“You need to learn to work together.”

In schools around the world educators place students in group settings all the time. It is an expected norm of the classroom where we drop kids in groups to cover the 4C’s and to get ready for the so called “real world”(because the world they live in now is not real?)

However, one thing schools have forgotten to develop and focus on are the skills needed for group work to actually succeed. Group work is hard. It might be the toughest element in the school setting.

How many times do we organize students into groups and teams but we don’t take time to develop the culture, the elements needed to collaborate, the skills of honest talk, critical feedback, and building relationships in order for the group to work efficiently?

We don’t. We assume that these things have been taught previously. We assume they know how to work in groups. BUT, why is that every single time we have the same concerns from the students:

  • Student 1 is not doing anything
  • Student 2 is doing all the work
  • Student 3 is so quiet that they are intimidated to speak up against Student 3
  • Student 4 is the wild card that could be paired with Student 1,2,3 throwing the group to one side.

Now, I am guilty of this myself. I am not finger pointing at anyone. As an educator and parent I realize now more than ever before that I must go back to the basic building blocks of the skills needed to work with other people

Last week while attending one of the most surreal and powerful learning opportunities in my life I had to work in a group to develop a global education project focused on leadership, bravery, and courage(I am referring to the E2 event at Microsoft). My team like all 42 teams consisted of 6 members from 6 different countries. We had to face the fact of not knowing each other at all. We had to overcome language barriers, culture differences, and trying to understand one another on almost every single level let alone understand the project itself.

It was a massive undertaking. It was difficult. It was hard. It was one of the most personally challenging things I have done in my education career. And it was one of the most rewarding.

Throughout the project I was reminded again and again how difficult group work is for people. It reminded me that we as educators need to remind ourselves that when we move students into groups it is a very challenging thing we are asking if we want the group to operate as a cohesive and collaborative group.

I write this post as a calling to all educators to think about group work.

What are you doing to prepare students to understand how to work in groups?

What skills have you focused on in your class to allow group work to thrive or do you just focus on content?

What are the building blocks placed in the project to allow students to reflect, grow, and adapt along their journey?

On a slightly different note I reflected on my own practices as an educator and I think that many of these things don’t happen because we as educators need instruction. We need PD on how to collaborate. We are not the best. We meet all the time and do things in teams, but do we really know how to collaborate? Do the loud ones run the show? Is there a place for quiet ones? Do we take time to really listen? Do we actually put personal bias aside to achieve a quality product?

As much as students need help developing these skills we as educators also need help. I know that I have to work on hearing ideas, thinking them through, understand that all my ideas are not the best, and to not always take the reigns and take charge. The hard part is that many assume that I will do that so we move into our comfort zone roles. We must work together to mix things up. Allow others to lead. Find ways to merge ideas.

For example, when I was working with my amazing team 20 we had two ideas in development. It was tough to find a common ground where we could make both ideas work. We had to work to make things happen. We had late nights and early mornings to make the vision come alive and develop a project where I love everything about it! Through the hard work and collaboration you begin to develop an emotional connection to the work. Everyone had to play a part in order for the project to succeed.


Next time you organize students into teams or groups please be sure you have created the context to allow the groups to thrive. Where are the support services? What skills have you focused on to help them become better collaborators? Have you really thought through the implications of the group work? More importantly, have you taken time to look inward on yourself to work on the skills you need to be a better group member?

Lastly, do we provide time to celebrate the success of hard work in pulling off a successful group project?

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2 thoughts on “Group Work Is Hard

  1. Absolutely, working in groups is hard!!! When writing or speaking about school responsibilities to students, I always include one of the key ones: facilitating the development of four skills: effective learning, effective problem solving, TEAMING, and communicating.

    I have done workshops on teaming and would be available to any group of educators wishing PD. Activities I did with my students and recommend:

    – Randomly assigning teams.
    – If possible keep groups of three (a group of four being better than two pairs – not group).
    – Have teams develop a contract of operating rules and update frequently.
    – Assess how teams are operating regularly and facilitate changes.
    – Include member assessment of each one’s contributions including own in refinement of team performance into individual student performance.

    And I’d add today:

    – Insist that teams keep an up-to-date e-portfolio of efforts documenting progress and learning with that e-portfolio used by the team to justify team’s proposed project grade – though obviously the instructor deciding the grade.