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The Art and Science of Group Work

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.”

The Power of Storytelling

The Power of Storytelling

A collaborative humanities project helped Milton’s sixth-graders gain a deeper appreciation for the power of storytelling

Story by Sarah Abrams

On a morning last spring in classrooms throughout Ware Hall, Milton’s sixth-graders fielded questions from their classmates about historical figures they had spent the past several months researching and writing about.

Sitting in groups of four before their classmates, teachers, and families, the students took turns delivering their findings, asserting that the people they had chosen to study possessed strong democratic ideals—from politician and businessman Robert Smalls to scientist and astronaut Sally Ride to mathematician and computer scientist Annie Easley.

A bevy of questions from their classmates followed: “How did your person demonstrate democratic citizenship?” “How did events going on at the time affect their views?” “How were they perceived?” “What goals did they wish to accomplish?”

Later, students read narratives about events in their own lives, sharing stories of reflection and discovery, from deep connections to their pets to the isolation they felt during the pandemic to moments that revealed unexpected personal courage. All the essays were on display and available by scanning a QR code linked to their stories.

The morning event marked the culmination of a year-long collaboration between Rose Bailey’s social studies and Adam Machson-Carter’s English classes examining the power of storytelling—from both an analytical and a narrative perspective. Over the course of the year, the sixth-graders researched and wrote reports on the lives of U.S. historical figures and wrote and read their own personal narratives.

In the social studies portion of the project, the students chose a U.S. historical figure who illustrated the qualities of democratic citizenship described in Amanda Gorman’s iconic poem “The Hill We Climb.” After weeks of organizing and analyzing their research, each student wrote a three-to-five-page essay making the case for how the individual they had chosen illustrated those qualities.

“The goal from a social-studies-specific lens,” says Bailey, “is for students to understand what it’s like to be a researcher with expertise who is able to communicate that expertise to others. The panels the students took part in are modeled after a research form they might see later in their academic careers. It required them to think about and explain what democratic citizenship means and, when it was their turn to ask questions, to ask classmates about their research in order to draw connections. It’s about both the process and their figures.”

Isha Singh ’29 chose 19th-century writer and activist Matilda Joselyn Gage, whom she found on the Women’s History Museum website, as the historical figure she wanted to know more about. “I was wondering why I hadn’t heard of her before, and furthermore, why she wasn’t spoken about as much as [women’s rights activists] Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton,” Isha says.

In the English portion of the project, the sixth-graders engaged in a deep study of storytelling and the literary techniques writers employ. They started with Humans of New York, a book and collection of Instagram blog posts about people living in New York City, and personal narratives by children’s book writers, including The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family, by Ibtihaj Muhammad.

“We looked at these stories together,” Machson-Carter says. “Here’s why an author is doing this. Here’s how an author is exploding a moment—a strategy to spread out a really important moment—and here’s how they use that moment to show the reader what they mean. Students then took those lessons to create their own narratives. They got to tell the story they wanted to tell, but they had a set of techniques that they needed to try to apply.”

Isha Singh’s personal narrative, “Riya and Friends,” described her close ties with her sister, Riya Singh ’22, and how their relationship helped her form closer connections with others. “I wanted to show how much family means to me, but because socializing and teamwork are such important aspects of the Milton community, I also wanted to connect it back to Milton,” Isha says. “Before we did this project I didn’t really consider how much impact stories had on people.”

Through the year-long process of researching, reading, and writing, Bailey and Machson-Carter believe the students came away with a number of important lessons. They not only learned storytelling skills, but also were asked to consider whose stories are told and by whom. “We read a novel by a Choctaw author about the Trail of Tears and talked about what it means to hear this story from the perspective of someone like Andrew Jackson and someone whose family was part of the Trail of Tears,” Machson-Carter says. “We asked them to think critically about how to make those two sides present themselves.”

“Through this process of writing research papers and personal narratives, they have really solid modeling skills they can take forward as they move through their grades here,” Bailey says. “What we’re always working on in the Middle School—and through this effort specifically—is empowering our students to reflect on who they are, know how to use their voices to express their thoughts, and think about how they can use their voices for change.”

What’s the Big Idea?

As Robert F. Kennedy ’44 observed, the best ideas—the most daring, and those that make the most profound impact on our world—spring from the minds of people who are unafraid to ask “Why not?” This issue highlights Milton graduates whose ideas are limitless, who challenge outdated assumptions, and who champion new approaches to old problems. On campus, students and teachers celebrate not only thinking but rethinking, and the powerful good that can be achieved when minds are nurtured, compassionate, and free.