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Why I no longer use groups in the classroom: a reflection on Lehrer’s New Yorker article “Groupthink”

February 10, 2012

*This is the original version of this article. A revised version was published at Education Week (after some helpful editing by Liana).


I just read New Yorker article “Groupthink” – a fascinating look at the concept of brainstorming, including its origins. According to author Jonah Lehrer, brainstorming was introduced as a creativity-inducing practice by advertising guru Alex Osborn in his book Your Creative Power. The book, published in the late nineteen-forties, was a surprise best seller, and Osborn’s ideas about brainstorming, according to Lehrer, became “the most widely used creativity technique in the world.” Whether in business, politics, entertainment, or education, group-thinking was and is regarded as the ultimate path to ingenuity and productivity.

One small problem: Lehrer points to numerous studies over the years that have demonstrated that brainstorming doesn’t work, at least not as Osborn defined it.  Lehrer focuses his attention on the absence of criticism and negative feedback recommended by Osborn. Pointing to many studies over the years, Lehrer shows that, in fact, groups who debate and challenge one another are more productive than groups that simply supportively bounce their ideas off one another.

Lehrer offers the words of Washington University psychologist Keith Sawyer to nail down his point: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

Lehrer goes on in the article to focus on the give-and-take of debate as a more powerful tool for creativity and ingenuity than Osborn’s soft-and-sweet brainstorming technique. But I got stuck on the Sawyer quote – the assertion that working alone and then coming together to compare and contrast thoughts gets the best results.

I’ve thought a lot about groupthinking, particularly as it relates to the writing classroom. You see, “groupwork” is very common in my field (rhetoric composition) – many teachers swear by it, as I did originally. When asked to articulate my philosophy for teaching writing near the end of my time in graduate school, I wrote this:

Though I was initially resistant to the idea, you can sign me up as one who is going to be applying collaborative learning in the classroom, using groups to create what Belenky calls a ‘connected class’. It is my hope that through their connecting and sharing with one another, the students will be more engaged in the classroom, more engaged in the writing process, and more engaged with the world in which they live.

Ah, the idealism of a new teacher. My first couple of semesters, I used groups weekly, breaking the students up into groups of 4-6 to respond to one another’s writing at each stage of the writing process. But I quickly grew weary of the mixed results, and a more experienced teacher whom I respected remarked to me one day that she had given up on groups, opting to manage the culture of the classroom from the front rather than entrust it to the luck-of-the-draw approach of small groups. Like so often happens in life, my colleague told me the thing I already believed and gave me permission to follow my instincts.

What are those instincts? Well, I believe group work is fraught with peril, above all the threat of a lousy group due to the negative influence of one or more. Here’s the thing: I’ve only got those freshmen in my classroom for about 36 hours per semester, and I need to maximize the time to instill in them all the goods I’ve gathered for their benefit. I’m not talking about lecture; I’m a workshop guy all the way. I’m talking about large group collaboration under my direction, individual writing under my direction, and peer review under my direction.

Does all this “under my direction” sound paternalistic? Well, maybe I am a bit paternalistic: I believe in the writing teacher as a coach, a mentor, an editor, etc. These roles by their very nature are paternalistic, so I’m not apologizing.

But my main point in this writing, looking back at my quote from Sawyer, is that the best thinking comes from working alone and then sharing ideas. This is not to say that the writer who writes alone is only thinking his own thoughts – not at all. Only a fool would believe that. Every person is a collection of all the things that he has seen and heard and read since he entered the world. As philosopher Michael Oakeshott puts it:

We are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.

Reading and writing are social acts, even when done in solitude.

So, the point is not that our students need to block out the thinking of others; it’s that our students need to learn how to work out their thinking on their own. As Peter Elbow says, they need to learn to “talk reflectively to themselves.” That is the only way they will ever be able to truly enter into what Oakeshott calls “the Conversation of Mankind.”

In my experience, students are lucky if they land in a small group whose culture focuses on that grand conversation. I can’t afford to take that chance; I’ve got a small window of opportunity to stir my students to great thinking and writing. So I’ll dictate the culture in my classroom, I’ll impose a pedagogy of charity, and I’ll force them to sit alone with their thoughts with nothing but a piece of paper in one hand and a pen in the other.


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One Comment
  1. I am so thankful for the research showing to be true what some of us have known all along. And thankful that there are teachers out there paying attention to it and to the “grand conversation.” Thanks for writing!

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