Student Groups and Debates

Student Group Dynamics
Student Group Dynamics

Teachers often have students work in groups to solve problems.  Educators may recite that “two heads are better than one” or something of that sort when talking about the power of effective collaboration.   I’ve seen firsthand how student grouping can impact decision making and student learning.  How a group interacts will often influence outcomes.  Positive interactions between group members often spurs a team to meet their goals.  I believe most teachers encourage positive talk during group activities and many set up a norm/expectation list for behavior. Learning is often stretched when students are encouraged to explain their answers to others.

What happens when a student explains an answer and the other party isn’t receptive?  Or, what happens when students disagree on an answer or how to solve a problem?  This is bound to happen from time to time, but I don’t think this is necessarily a negative.  Students should be able to stay on topic and analyze their own argument without expressing frustration towards the idea (not people) that they disagree with.  Disagreement may conjure anger if not carefully managed.  This requires clear expectations and modeling by the teacher. Easier said than done?  Yes.  Often “I agree” statements can overshadow academic misunderstandings, while students just follow what the leader is saying in the group.  I’m aware that some classrooms encourage debate and I think that in some cases that benefits the classroom.  I should also note that having a classroom/group debate depends on the problem and is purely situational.

Students, no matter what their age, need to be able to communicate their ideas in order to meet goals.  It’s perfectly fine for students to disagree with the group.  How that disagreement is communicated and received charts the course for the group.  Individual insights hold value and each contribute to the overall goal of the group.  Students need to be able to disagree respectfully, but understand that the team is working towards the same goal.  Students that have this mindset are able to offer differing opinions, but innovate as a team.

Having a balance is key.  Groups should work together but also be open to differing ideas. Disagreement often forces other students to justify their positions.  Justifying provides opportunities for students to analyze their own argument, which gives the teacher a better understanding of a student’s understanding of a particular topic/concept.

I think this also plays a role in how adult teams operate as well (see Ringelmann).  I’m going to end this post with a quote from James Surowiecki, the author of The Wisdom of Crowds.

“The wisdom of crowds comes not from the consensus decision of the group, but from the aggregation of the ideas/thoughts/decisions of each individual in the group.”

 

Picture Credit:  S. Miles

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