The Art and Science of Group Work
Despite its reputation, group work can be an effective learning tool.
Story by Marisa Donelan
Group work. Its mere mention is enough to prompt dread in even the most dedicated students and anxiety dreams for those long out of school. Entire Buzzfeed posts are devoted to bemoaning group assignments, and memes regularly circulate about group members who take on all the work or ride others’ coattails to improve grades. Adults compare collective job tasks to the nightmarish group projects of their academic pasts.
The consensus about group projects is that, well, they stink.
But they don’t have to, says Milton English Department teacher David Nurenberg, who has presented at Milton Faculty Forums about more thoughtful ways to approach group projects. Group work at its most functional can deepen learning, build excitement around a subject area, and prepare students for collaborative work they may encounter in the next stages of education and their careers.
In addition to his position at Milton, where he joined the faculty in 2022, Nurenberg is a professor at Lesley University in Cambridge, where he works with teachers in training. At Lesley, he taught a course in classroom management that describes classrooms as communities of learners—something Milton’s Harkness table structure supports. Around the Harkness table, students learn to listen to one another, disagree respectfully, and build on one another’s ideas.
“In other words, you have a classroom that’s not 11 students and one teacher, but you’re 12 students and 12 teachers,” he says. “We all have something that we can teach each other. We all have something that we can learn from each other. And that’s very empowering for students, to recognize that they’ve got expertise that I don’t have—and maybe I know a few things that they don’t, and we can learn from each other. This was a big hurdle for me because I hated group work in high school. Most people do.”
It took Nurenberg years to realize that the reason so many people find group projects so unpleasant is that, in most schools, no one teaches students how to approach them.
“We would never dream of sending a kid onto a soccer pitch with a pair of cleats and a ball and no training, and expect them to win the game,” he says. “There are all kinds of discrete skills: shooting, passing, goalkeeping. And yet we forget that when we tell kids, ‘Go work in groups’ without any training and then wonder why it’s a train wreck.”
There’s a science to teaching people how to work together, and with his students, Nurenberg starts small. They get to know their peers through low-stakes games such as collectively forming a sentence, or performing theater exercises in which they mirror each other’s movements, or they build a tower of cards together.
“On the one hand, it looks like a silly thing,” he says. “Why would you take time away from instruction for that? But it’s where they develop the skills to pay attention to each other, to exchange ideas, to listen to each other, to give feedback, to give constructive criticism, and learn to receive it. You later give them role-playing scenarios that deal with group conflict.”
“It takes a lot of time—I’m not going to lie about that,” he continues. “But I’ve found that the more I invest in that stage, the more dividends it pays and the less time I lose later on.”
A lot of group work stagnates or fails when groups encounter interpersonal conflict. In building up these skills, students learn to navigate conflict in productive ways. “Conflict is not a bad thing,” Nurenberg says, “assuming you manage it in a way that’s respectful and you come out with something that’s better than you could’ve individually done. That’s the goal.”
Learning to embrace disagreement is a lifelong skill, says Nurenberg, who notes that there are fewer and fewer examples of it in the adult world. When politicians and other figures in media simply shout soundbites at one another, they demonstrate the failures and gridlock that arise when those skills aren’t valued or practiced. Echo chambers—environments where one’s ideas and biases are amplified and reinforced, which are common on social media—also fail to model productive disagreement.
As Nurenberg did research for his doctorate, he studied how people learn and became interested in the works of social psychologist Lev Vygotsky, “who, among others, emphasizes that we’re social creatures,” he says. “We learn, in many respects, through our interactions and through our relationships, and our learning is influenced by all these factors that make up an interaction.”
Good group work can enhance any subject. Reading and writing are often considered solitary endeavors, but learning about literature doesn’t have to be. Nurenberg put his freshmen in groups to create and stage a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Discussions and even (respectful) arguments about the project helped the students go deeper into the content, and they all had a delineated role in bringing the projects to fruition. The work they’d done to build collaborative skills helped them divide up jobs according to each member’s strengths.
“Ultimately, I want the students to negotiate and define those roles among themselves,” Nurenberg says.
Through negotiation and disagreement, students challenge one another and help one another grasp meaningful concepts. A theme or symbol they missed while reading can surface during discussion, and varied interpretations can help broaden a reader’s understanding and appreciation for literature. In Nurenberg’s section of Perspectives (a sophomore elective), students studied colonialism in Africa through the works of nine authors, which helped illustrate how exposure to varied interpretations contributes to deeper learning.
“I hope they seek out different perspectives in their adult lives,” he says. “In some ways, I think that is more valuable than any discrete piece of grammar I teach.”
Research and practice have helped Nurenberg, who feared group projects as a student, embrace what Vygotsky called “the productive disequilibrium” of collaboration—both in his teaching and in work with his fellow faculty members. “There is a kind of discomfort that I think is necessary for learning,” he says. “Group work is not comfortable, but it can produce great learning.”