Monday, June 20, 2011

Groupwork vs Teamwork

We don't refer to the Dallas Mavericks as the group that won the NBA Championship. We say the Dallas Mavericks are the best team in the league, most would argue the world. What about a group of firefighters that spends a ton of time together, perfecting their relationships. They work on the same wave-length during an emergency because of this closeness.  Certainly language stronger than a "group" of firefighters is needed to describe them. In order to be the best they can be, they need to come together as a team. A group implies a mere collection of parts. The word team marks when that mere collection of parts shifts to relationships focused on trust, collaboration, and care. Teams elevate the work of the whole above the singular. The sum of the whole is more than its parts.

Awhile back I remember my sister (a sophomore in high school) really complaining about group work. I was concerned about her objections because I would like to consider peer assistance and cooperation as cornerstones in the classroom. Then I heard her jump at hanging out with her soccer team at the movies later that evening. At that moment I had an epiphany. My sister hated group work because it is not focused on teamwork. If teachers want high quality and equal work (effort) to be done in collaborative projects, a shift needs to occur. For high level projects we need to start thinking of them as team projects, where students come together not as a mere collection of parts, but rather an interlocking web of dependence and mutual enjoyment.

If we as teachers give tasks or assignments where a loose group of individuals, that have no relationship suffices, maybe we should rethink that activity. This means the task and project design are very important. Additionally, this calls for students to focus on the teams they create (or the teacher creates). This can be done by listening to student input for selecting "teams" or even allowing students to pick the people they will work with. It may mean spending more time on team building exercises or simply stressing that you are a team that works together.

Why stop at small teams of students, shouldn't we see the whole classroom as a team? Having students buy into this team concept may sound cheesy, but is something I am really going to work on for the next school year.  The mere shift of approaching students' peer work as teamwork rather than group work may have a profound significance on the dynamic of collaboration in the classroom.


  1. Hmmmm....

    The Mavericks all have the same interest, and I know this could be debatable, but also similar talent levels. Firefighters have similar personalities and are all trained to produce an standardized outcome using the same exact procedures.

    I hear you...and I struggle with it also. I know that when I group by interest and ability I get better results. If you placed some baseball players on the Mavs would the results have been the same?

    One thing I am going to experiment with next year is a couple of weeks of running my class like a Saturday Night Live Show. Come in on MOnday and produce a final product on Friday. Groups will be made based on interest, and work individually, but each group is responsible for the success of the "whole." So basically teams within a team...and yes, there might even be some individual mavericks working solo to bring "success" to the team.

  2. I have to say that I really like both suggestions. Each class and student is different and we have to be able to adapt and tailor our instruction. It is just refreshing to see experimention and thought being made to address our ever changing dynamics. Collaboration and engagement are key factors in student success and the points you've made address that by allowing the students to work both independently and as a group toward a common goal. The only addition that I would add is the balance holistic factor; that is, trying to ensure that the 'work' speaks to the whole of the students development.

  3. Paul

    You definitely raise some points that I didn't even think about. It is very true that interest and ability matter and often times will produce great results. I think something I really do believe in though is that each student has some type of ability. If we buy into the team mentality that unique ability will be used. Think of the Mavericks. Sure they are relatively equal as they are professional basketball players. But within that they all have some niche that is necessary to be a great team. Cardinal gave some good minutes and D off the bench, Dirk was the star, Stevenson hit the three. Many people lauded the Mavericks as a team in the true sense of the word. That is why the were able to unseat the gaudy Heat. I think if the class buys into the team mentality the whole has to be better.

    I like your idea of the team within the team concept. Let me know how this goes.

  4. Troy-

    Two points I loved from your comment. One is the idea of a common goal. I think this concept is something that all educators can help teach and implement. This can help both the large group (class) and small groups develop into a team.
    Also I like your point in dealing with the holistic factor. Sometimes we focus on "work" in school as if it some assembly line in a factory. If we allow all students to shine their abilities (however unique they are) we all learn regardless of the final product or work.

  5. I see a big distinction between sports teams (high school or professional) and the idea of students working in teams to complete a class project - namely that team members are highly motivated to join sports teams, and usually have to compete fiercely to earn their spots. Once there, they want to fight to stay their, earn and keep starting positions, etc. Additionally there is often huge social and community support for those teams, and their players. If we, as teachers, could find a way to provide similar context and support, we might get similar results and efforts.

    Another difference is specialization. Sports team members have a specialty, which you also note is true of individual students in a class. However, in class we often want students to develop skills outside of their specialties and interests, often hoping that others in their groups/teams will help them do so. If that is our goal, rather than the best project (which would probably come from having students work to their strengths rather than attempt to develop their weaknesses), then we remove the focus on winning that binds sports teams together.

  6. Bill this is why you are such a valuable member of my PLN. You always have me thinking and are not afraid to turn me on to a new or different way of thinking.

    I don't think the sport/school analogy is a good one and I try to stay away from them. The immediacy of the NBA Finals probably wanted me to include them as one. Your points are extremely relevant to that analogy. Although wouldn't it be neat as we saw the school, community, students, administrators more as a team? I think that is what I was getting at. The more team-oriented we are the greater our institutions will be. Groups often mean a collection of individuals. Teams have something beyond that.

    Your comments on specialization really have me thinking. It is a fine line we walk right? We want students to excel in their given talents and abilities. We also need to give them a time to use so they can teach their peers. But do we do this at the expense of only concentrating on their strengths? As you point out, if we are only thinking of the ending we may revert to only strengths. I really want to improve on that. The end or the product is not everything. Relationships, growth, and learning are everything.

  7. I see your distinction Tim, and agree that the "esprit de corps" that one frequently sees on sports teams and in the military is something that might encourage learning if educators could find ways to stimulate it within classrooms and schools.

    Thinking more about that this morning, I remembered a terrific book on this topic as applied in the business world. It is titled ORGANIZING GENIUS: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman.

    Warren Bennis was interviewed in 1997 (when the book was published) by David Gergen on the Newshour. A summary of the interview is at

    The interview transcript is at

    On the dark side, there is THE WAVE, Ron Jones's tale of his experience bringing NAZI history to life in the high school history class he taught at Cubberly High School in Palo Alto in the 1960s. The lesson he so effectively taught is that effective teams can be formed to serve destructive as well as constructive ends. You may read about his experiment, and view the Emmy and Peabody award winning TV movie made about it at

    The perspective of one of the students in the class is published by Jones on his web site at

  8. I think having the kids be part of the discussion at the very beginning of the year is important. Explaining that, just like on a team, you might not know some of the players and some players might have different abilitites than others but everyone has different strengths to support the team. You don't want to reinforce cliques or bullying that already exists. By having the class "buy in" from the beginning and help set up expectations, it can go far to reinforce the "team" relationship.

  9. Bill---

    As always some great resources I am ready to check out. The negatives of this can probably be also seen in books like Eichmann in Jerusalem and The Reader as well.

    I love how you bring the conversation to bullying and cliques. Quality teams or groups can be undermined by these corrosive constructs. In middle school this is absolutely the case