Many teachers avoid using group work because they fear what happens when students work together—some group members don't contribute, others contribute too much, there's no in-depth exploration of issues, some members don't deliver, others don't show up, group meetings are more social events than work sessions, disagreements get personal, and so goes the list. When problems like these emerge, the students who care register complaints with the teacher. The question then is, who's responsible for fixing what's going wrong in the group?
Yes, the teacher can intervene, and if the problems are serious or students are very inexperienced group members, that may be the best option. But in most other cases, it's not the best approach. Students, many of them soon to be professionals, ought to be developing skills that can be used address group process issues. How would most bosses handle an employee who comes complaining about a group member who's always late to meetings?
Initially, students (especially beginning ones and those who are not yet mature adults) are reluctant to accept responsibility for the behavior of others in their groups, even though they may have had a hand in creating the problems. They need teachers to empower them to tackle behaviors that compromise the group's effectiveness. Students are often surprised that what they can do isn't all that confrontational or disagreeable. If the group's been trying to decide what they should do and Antonio hasn't said anything, somebody in the group needs to ask Antonio what he thinks. In other cases, it's how the group shouldn't respond. A member arrives late, apologizes, and then runs through a litany of reasons why she didn't arrive on time. What that member shouldn't be hearing from the group is, “Oh, Katy, it's okay. It's not a problem, no worries. Sit down and catch your breath.” It is a problem. She wasn't there when the group was working, and while no one may want to say that, they certainly shouldn't be saying the opposite. It would be better for someone in the group to respond with, “Okay, now that you're here, we've made these decisions, and we're dividing up the work this way.”
Students need to understand that the norms governing how people function in groups get established early on. If most members arrive to meetings on time, if the group has an agenda, and if members are coming prepared, that puts pressure on everyone else to follow suit. Couple the presence of norms with a bit of peer pressure, and the group has a powerful motivating force.
Effective group functioning is also the result of how well individual and group goals are integrated. Leadership illustrates how this feature of group dynamics works. If the group has no designated leader, that means one has to emerge. Members indicate their interest in being leaders through their leadership behavior: “Well, maybe we could start by introducing ourselves.” “Does anybody have any ideas about how we should start?” “I'm wondering if we should start with a to-do list.” If the group does what the member proposes, that response suggests this potential leader has followers. The problem emerges when multiple individuals in the group have leadership goals. If they are all suggesting what the group should do and their suggestions differ, that group has a leadership issue. What helps the group is for one (or more) of these potential leaders to recognize that the group needs followers more than leaders and then sacrifices his or her need to lead for the good of the group.
Being able to sacrifice individual goals requires students to understand what roles help groups function effectively and to be willing to put the group's success ahead of individual goals. Students new to group work often don't have these insights, but they can be cultivated by encouraging student reflection about what's happening in the group, what individual goals others have, and what their goals in the group might be. Sometimes the best analysis is forward-looking: “If you were in a group like this in the future, what would you do to make the group successful?”
Group members should be encouraged to have discussions about how they are working together. If all is going well, these are easy conversations that can focus on fine-tuning processes. If they aren't going all that well, the first attempts at discussion typically sugarcoat the problems, making them seem minor and unimportant. If teachers facilitate these more difficult discussions, they can help the group explore more in depth those areas that need more work.
When called upon to intervene in group problems, teachers are at a disadvantage. They haven't been part of the group's interactions. They must act on the reports of individuals in the group. If the reports of what's happened are different, who's telling the truth? Groups may be in a better position to respond to problems, especially if the teacher is there to offer guidance and support.
Too often teachers underestimate the importance of group dynamics issues, even though how well students learn the content is frequently determined by how the group functions. It behooves both teachers and students to recognize that the responsibility for what happens in the group ultimately resides within the group.