7 Group Work

Realistic IT roles involve work groups and teams. Traditional schooling is more about individuals working alone to master facts and to reproduce those facts on a test. Adult workforce instruction for IT candidates needs to favor workplace behavior over traditional school behavior. Talking to your neighbor in class about code is not cheating; it’s collaboration. Let’s start with that frame of mind and then work out the rest!

Group work has its pitfalls. If you think back on your own educational experience or if you reflect on a variety of occupational roles you have experienced, some truly horrible work group experiences will surely come to mind! If the French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Satre had been an IT person, he very would likely have said, “Hell is a bad work group”. Glassdoor says as much right now. But can we do better in our classes?

First of all, for group work as with instruction in general, the instructor can make calibrated decisions along a DI-to-Discovery spectrum. A very DI sort of group work in class might be letting students team up on some simple, high-structure, fact- or calculation-based practice assignment. The instructor can be right there, listening in, and intervening to be sure the students stay on track. Although this is nominally group work, it really is more like traditional schooling and it does little to inculcate actual IT job skills. The other extreme is for the instructor to assign groups to some large project, wish them all good luck, and then to wait till finals week to grade the results. This will not win any teacher of the year awards! The art of group work is to give the groups enough freedom to make the project realistic, challenging, and meaningful, while providing structure and support consistent with a truly educational process.

If you know and practice some professional  group process method like Agile or Scrum, bringing that to class can add value for your students. Modifying professional process methods to fit better for education settings and timelines can also work well. But no matter what process the instructor specifies, inter-personal conflict is a factor you must consider. To a certain extent, when it comes to group process experience, even bad experience is good experience, because it’s experience. Many job interviews ask, “How have you dealt with work place conflicts?” Getting some conflict resolution experience in a classroom setting is a good way to grow people skills, and the more difficult the teammates are, the more those skills will grow! That being said, there are limits, and as an instructor you cannot allow work groups to devolve into the IT equivalent of a steel cage match. A better approach is to teach your students process at the same time you are teaching content and to help them to form positive understandings of work group behavior.

One famous group process model is “forming, storming, norming, performing”. In the first phase, “forming”, group members are not quite sure what to do. The group seems aimless, and lines of communication between group members are vague and not well established. People may be reluctant to talk. The section phase, “storming” is where things get interesting. Humans, evidently, need conflict to create social structure. In the “storming” phase, arguments about all sorts of details will break out. This is very normal. Just be ready to step in and calm things down if the arguments spin out of control. Like a good family therapist, teach them how to fight fairly, within a larger context of mutual respect and concern. But let them work it out! The outcome of vigorous “storming” is “norming”, namely the phase in which the group agrees to define roles, responsibilities, and expectations. It many seem more ideal to just start with agreed processes and to skip the arguing phase. If humans were just calculating devices, that would be a great approach. But emotion is a critical layer in the human “stack”. People can’t just agree to respect to role boundaries, they need to feel them too. So storming. People argue about things they care about. From that point of view, a group with no arguments is a low energy group. The norms that follow the storms are the ones people remember and respect. Once norming is accomplished, then comes “performing”, namely doing the actual project work.


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Making Connections: Instructors Guide for Information Technology Copyright © by Robert Bunge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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