Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Social Engineering

As a historian, I am not particularly well-versed in the ways of doing collaborative work. It is not common practice in my field -- for teaching or research -- but I've been dabbling in the world of other disciplines and pedagogies of late and for a few very specific things, group work makes sense.

The project on my mind this afternoon is for a women's and gender studies course. I've done some version of this project twice before and had some great projects and some disasters. In most cases, the disasters came from the composition of the group. So, in a bold and unprecedented move on my part, I am assigning my 24 students to groups with no input from them.

On the one hand, this runs completely counter the values of the social movements and leaders we are studying in this course (on women leaders in 20th century social movements). On the other hand, I think I have the knowledge to build better groups than they do. I know more of the whole group and I have the experience of working with two other classes.

I suppose that I could work to build concensus for me to choose the groups... get the students to buy into this vision... help them to see why this will work for them.... but really? This isn't a social movement where the price of me not building concensus would be my constituents leaving the movement. Nope, this is a class and I'm the prof and I give/assign their grades. Instead of this being a lesson in organizing around a concensus model, this will be a lesson in recognizing power relationships.

So I set to work: boldest students into different groups, but each of those also has someone there who will not let them run away with the show (no two confrontational people together, though, otherwise they'll just argue while the others do the real work); students who've had me in more traditional courses and are better trained up on historical research and citiations are distributed across the groups; most groups get a quiet but studious student (not enough to go around); workhorses go in with "medium" talkers-doers.... I'm going for no one either running away with the group or having to do all the work themselves. I did break up several friend pairs so new social dynamics would have to be built amongst all the members. Damn, this was fun! I can't believe I waited this long to try. These are good, good groups. And yes, you can come back in March and ask me if I still think this!


Dee said...

Totally makes sense. From an Organizational Development perspective, the most highly performing project teams are those where a decision is made at the outset about what strengths are required for success and members selected accordingly (Myers-Briggs, Gallup's Strengthsfinder, or some other assessment can be used). In this case, you're the assessment!

Self selected teams may be more comfortable for some students, but the situations that produce growth aren't usually the comfortable ones.


Zoe the Wonder Dog said...

Excellent, I'll be sure to tell any that complain that my OD specialist said it was okay!

biscodo said...

From a project management perspective, it makes sense as well. Each group should have a broad range of skills, and the best way for their skills/temperaments to complement each other is for them to be different. Think of it like avoiding inbred group-think. Also, it avoids destructive clique-forming... too much of the same thing produces inward-facing, blinder-ed thought/action. Team members that get along too well don't get anything done (because the are too busy getting along), while a group that has only one thing in common (the project) are more likely to be able to keep the project in mind when collaborating with people of a different background/personality.

The big question is: how will you grade them? Everyone in the same group gets the same grade? If each group has a broad set of skills, the groups are more evenly "matched", but within the group there is guaranteed to be bright shining stars as well as slackers... Giving everyone in the group the same grade isn't fair there.

Suggestion: have a "group grade" that you assign (75% or so?), then have an individual grade that accounts for 25% of the project grade). Ask each group member to grade all the other members on secret ballots, and come up with a "this person deserves extra credit" and "this person was slacking" modifiers?

Dee said...

Clearly, the authorities have spoken. Tell 'em to sack up and deal with it if they complain.

Grading: Have part of the project grade be based on peer evaluation.


Daye said...

so how did it work out? were they productive?

Zoe the Wonder Dog said...

They will be working on these projects for the next month, so the process has only just begun. There were only two looks of dread when I announced that I was putting them in groups, but all settled in quickly and had a good first meeting. A few even looked relieved at not having to negotiate group formation on their own. I'll report back once projects are complete.

Zoe the Wonder Dog said...

No worries Biscodo et al, I have a tried and trued system for grading that allows me to grade the results of the project and the students to grade themselves and other group members on the process. All these grades get thrown in together for a final, individual grade for each student. The sociologists taught me to do this -- much more their thing than mine!