Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Turning Group Work into Collaboration

I was desperate to find a way *not* to blog about some very real drama that is hitting one of my Peer-Driven Learning classes. It's amazing how one bad, poorly-prepared, attention-starved apple can spoil the whole bunch. And now the class has decided to break out into working groups, with the Bad Apple's group suffering from a horrible case of regression. Unlike the other groups, where learning and discussion is taking place at a fast and furious pace, this group's other members have regressed back into sullen, defensive silence, the kind that I'm met with in most ordinary classes when asked to participate or do anything at all. 

(I'll be writing more about what each of the classes is doing on Monday, as well as how tomorrow goes, trying to mitigate the damage.)

No, this post is going to be about turning group work, something most of our students see as a burden or tedious, into a collaborative unit, which most see as a positive force for good in the world. It's timely, as last week the #FYCchat was on exactly that, and much of what we talked about was how to create an environment conducive to collaboration, creation, and collective wisdom, instead of competitive units of who-did-more-than-whom. 

Coincidentally, last week's episode of Project Runway featured a perfect case study on how group work doesn't work and collaboration does. For those of you who don't know, Project Runway is the brainchild of former supermodel Heidi Klum. She pits a group of designers against each other in weekly clothes-making challenges, eliminating one a week until the next-big-thing in fashion is declared the winner. The challenges can be ridiculous (clothes made out of materials found at a pet store!), and the drama...Oh, the drama. Sleep deprivation and other physical hardships often push designers to the brink, and the contestants are fighting for their creative and professional life. 

Last week's episode, Off the Track, is no exception. If you don't have an extra hour or so to spare to watch the episode (which is what I linked to above), you can read a pretty good recap here. Unlike most weeks, where the designers work as individuals, in Off the Track the designers are forced into teams of three and then expected to create a three-outfit cohesive line. Two groups in particular dissolve into complete and total chaos. One group gets completely wrapped up in drama, and while the team member  (Bert) certainly deserved their ire, the other two forget to actually design clothes and the trouble-maker creates the "best" garment. The other group, equally drama-filled (Him: You're designs are dowdy. Her: TEARS), but the team leader sucked it up, said he was sorry, and she sucked it up and accepted it, they put their differences aside, ending up creating one of the winning dresses

(Personally, that dress is a big "Meh" for me, but compared to a lot of the other designs, it was the least offensive. I honestly think Heidi was rewarding the group that was able to work through, or at least get past, their differences.)

I really invite you to watch the full episode to see how the "group work" mentality can deteriorate and destroy the final product while trying to really collaborate can produce good results, in spite of conflict. The team that found a way to work together was rewarded. Another important lesson is that you can only control the work that you do within the collaborative setting. While certainly a trouble-maker who doesn't play well with others, Bert still remembers that the purpose of the challenge is to create good clothes; the other two didn't even seem to bother, focusing instead on complaining about how useless and difficult to work with Bert is. 

I don't know why this realization about Project Runway has eased my mind; I still have to teach tomorrow and I still have to deal with the Bad Apple group. But at least now I have an external example to think about and refer to in order to work through the issue. A few hours ago, I was despondent. Now, I'm hopeful. I need to get my students to become the successful collaborators, not the petty group workers. 

Eat your heart out, Heidi!

2 comments:

  1. This a resource that I often use when preparing students for group collaboration: http://www.oncourseworkshop.com/Interdependence014.htm
    I usually give the students the scenarios and have them decide on the best way to deal with each. Then, I reveal what they should have done (sometimes they match, but most often they don't).

    I think you're idea of using a real-world example is brilliant!

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  2. Bear in mind that even work groups such as yours will often get into Bruce Tuckman's "Forming/ Storming/ Norming/Performing" cycle.

    Under the circumstances you may need to decide whether the Bad Apple group needs your explicit leadership.

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