Group Work: It Even Stops Bullies!

by Robert Pondiscio
July 26th, 2010

How do you stop a bully?  “Punch him in the nose,” Dad says.  “Ignore him and he’ll go away,” counsels Mom.   Not hardly.   There’s only one way to stop a bully and that’s…cooperative learning?

“As an essential part of the school curriculum, we have to teach children how to be good to one another, how to cooperate, how to defend someone who is being picked on and how to stand up for what is right,” say Susan Engel and Marlene Sandstrom of Williams College.  Weighing in on a Massachusetts law that mandates an anti-bullying curriculum, and requires schools to report serious cases to police, Engel and Sandstrom say a sense of responsibility for the well-being of others should be “an essential criterion” for what it means to be well-educated. “Children need to know that adults consider kindness and collaboration to be every bit as important as algebra and reading,” they write in a New York Times op-ed.

“In groups and one-on-one sessions, students and teachers should be having conversations about relationships every day….Teachers also need to structure learning activities in which children are interdependent and can learn to view individual differences as unique sources of strength. It’s vital that every student, not just the few who sign up for special projects or afterschool activities, be involved in endeavors that draw them together.”

Look at Norway, they say, where everyone from teachers to janitors to bus drivers are trained to spot bullying and how to intervene.  “Clearly, when a school and a community adopt values that are rooted in treating others with dignity and respect, children’s behavior can change,” write Engel and Sandstrom.

Katharine Beals plays Kumbaya Killer.  The author of Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World writes on her blog: “What’s egregiously missing from this Norwegian comparison is any mention of Norwegian school children working cooperatively on academic assignments.”

“The anecdotes I collected for my book strongly suggest that group learning environments, rather than preventing bullying, are often arenas for it. Bullying can be quite subtle and difficult to detect; teachers cannot supervise multiple groups simultaneously; unsocial and socially awkward children regularly report being teased and ignored as the social hierarchy of the playground creeps into the classroom’s “cooperative groups”–whenever the teacher is out of earshot.

Beals is impatient with those who “never stray within earshot of children who are supposed to be working together” in K-12 classrooms.  Instead, says Beals they “happily write Op-Ed pieces about how wonderfully these groups promote social harmony so long as they are ‘properly implemented.’”

Group work has become the ShamWow of education.  It raises test scores!  It teaches 21st Century Skills!  It even stops bullying!  It’s becoming the reason to go to school in the first place.  I’m fine with group work when it suits the content of the lesson, but I don’t care for the all group work, all the time orthodoxy.  And I’m skeptical that it’s a panacea for all that ails our schools—academic or social.


  1. Thanks for an excellent post, Robert.

    I don’t dispute the need to teach about certain virtues in school–to the extent that they are part of the subject–but group work is not the route to this. Engel and Sandstrom mistakenly assume that group work teaches kindness. It may teach students to be nice to each other (or not), to take turns and include everyone, but that is not the same as kindness.

    One learns more about kindness from literature than from group work (when the latter is encouraged for its own sake). Literature is not all kind by any means, but it takes the reader to questions of conscience, questions that demand introspection.

    As you say, Robert, when group work suits the content of the lesson, much good can come out of it. It is as good as the things it contains. But reading and thinking about literature can do even more than group work for a person’s moral sense. Petrarch wrote in 1346 that those who are taken up with other people’s business “are ruled by the power of another man’s nod and learn what they must do from another man’s look. They can claim nothing as their own.” Literature allows us remove ourselves, even temporarily, from the nods and looks of others; it allows us to experience and ponder something on our own.

    That is not to say that literature should be subordinated to a moral purpose or to any particular purpose. But often it goes much farther into matters of conscience than group work can. Even playful literature, even “nonsense” literature has the integrity of close listening to the sounds of words. All excellent literature is occupied with a kind of justice, since the writer must do justice to the work itself.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — July 26, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

  2. Diana, I’m a real believer in the value of teaching literature in our public schools, and I agree with you that literature can be a vehicle for teaching kindness. But I suspect the teacher has to make that an explicit goal. (I’m thinking, for example, of Rafe Esquith, who does this so wonderfully.)

    But I’m not sure that instruction in literature, even ostensibly GOOD instruction in literature, always teaches those lessons. My own experience in graduate school taught me that some (though certainly not all) eminent lit. scholars were not particularly kind people. Neither were all the graduate students who were devoting their lives to the study of literature. Too often, there was far too little humanity in the humanities.

    And to take a far more extreme example: Some totalitarian regimes press their national literature into service to justify their brutality and repression. In most cases, they misread that literature, but they can be very adept at extracting the wrong lessons….

    So while I believe excellent instruction in literature can teach kindness, so too can excellent use of group work. (The famous blue-eyed/brown-eyed experiment comes to mind.) Group work is far from a panacea, but the same goes for literary instruction.

    As I read your evocative writing about literature, though, I can tell that your students were a very lucky lot, indeed!

    Comment by Claus — July 26, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

  3. If schools were serious about creating an environment that promotes kindness, they would do what Waldorf schools do and require parents to sign a contract stating that their children will not watch TV or videos, play video games, or listen to pop music. *IF* families actually followed through on such a pledge, that would likely tremendously improve the atmosphere of the school by reducing students’ exposure to the toxic pop culture.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — July 26, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

  4. My experience in the 50′s in grade school in a middle class suburb, and in the ’70′s as a student teacher in a school near the infamous Robert Taylor housing project in Chicago, was identical: teachers simply required students to treat each other with respect, from Kindergarten onward. The experience of practicing (and being treated with)respect, repeated over and over, is what taught my classmates and me, and the students I taught, to value respect. Not a lot of preaching, certainly no “group work” whose goal was to teach correct behavior or good attitudes (although we did use group work for academic purposes in the school I taught at, from time to time).

    Comment by JB — July 26, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

  5. I don’t have much experience to base my opinions on, but my intuition tells me Katherine Beals makes sense about groups being arenas for bullying at times, and my intuition, common sense, and I think my experience as a child in school, tell me that JB has it right about teachers requiring respect being the basis for children learning respect.

    Collaboration is often idealized in ways and to a degree that totally loses me. Engel and Sandstrom say that children “can learn to view individual differences as unique sources of strength”. Well, sure, they can, but will they? They can also learn that working in groups can be frustrating. I learned that very early. Children also can learn that to get along they may need to pretend. They need to say the right things to avoid disapproval and censure. I learned that early also, but it wasn’t until middle age that I began to analyze it and rebel against it. Pretending is not always bad, to be sure. A lot of pretense is needed in everyday life in the interests of civility. But people rebel when they are put in situations in which they feel they are required to pretend in ways and to a degree that is offensive. That can happen when working in groups, and often does.

    Group work usually dilutes individual effort. Sure, individual difference can be a source of strength, but usually they are not. Usually the talents of individuals are not added. Usually they are subtracted. Usually I ignore the strengths of others because I don’t understand them or know how to relate to them. Usually others ignore my strengths because they don’t understand them or know how to relate to them.

    This is not to say that people are always frustrated by groups. We are a sociable species. We like working together, at least sometimes. What has always irritated me is the idealization of working in groups. Satisfaction of accomplishment normally comes from individual effort, not group effort, because individual effort is not diluted by the limitations of others.

    I do not object to teachers trying to teach morals and social skills. I think that is definitely a part of our job. Society expects it. But I think claiming that group work is the way to do it is just a part of the idealization of group work that I find irritating.

    So why do so many people idealize group work? I have given some thought to that and written up my analyses and conclusions at's-do.htm.

    Comment by Brian Rude — July 27, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

  6. Here’s the correct URL for Brian’s post:

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 27, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

  7. Word of the day: “groupiness.” Excellent post, Mr. Rude.

    Comment by James — July 27, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

  8. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chan Stroman, Robert Pondiscio. Robert Pondiscio said: Cooperative Learning is becoming the ShamWow! of #education. So powerful, it even stops bullies! [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Group Work: It Even Stops Bullies! « The Core Knowledge Blog, The Core Knowledge Blog -- — July 28, 2010 @ 9:00 am

  9. Claus, you bring up important points. Sorry if I seemed to imply that literature instruction was a panacea or that it causes kindness–that was not my intent. But an excellent work of literature is excellent whether taught well or badly. Group work, by contrast, depends entirely on what it holds. So if I were forced at gunpoint to choose between the non-panaceas of group work and literature, I would choose literature. Of course one should have both–but the group work should have meaning, and the literature should be taught in a way that brings out its meaning (or beauty, or play).

    I am not sure that explicit moral instruction should be part of literature instruction, though. That could too easily become heavy-handed (or could restrict the literature included). Some works lend themselves to moral considerations. Others show human complexity or folly or the intricacy of words (also important things to come to know). I remember reading Long Day’s Journey into Night in high school and starting to understand humans’ complex relation to reality: how they come close and retreat.

    If anything, literature can send the knee-jerk reaction on a slow, long detour. It can break apart a shallow judgment. It can shake up the shelter of the sure. And it can give students something to think about for many years.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — July 29, 2010 @ 10:32 am

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