Why Group Work Matters

In my previous post, I presented a sequence of activities based in large part on working in groups. As we all remember from high school biology, group projects are often problematic for students. Groups and the objectives they are supposed to achieve must be intentionally structured for two reasons. First, collaboration in groups needs to be built around individually-graded assignments and an 1914 Hair Oileffective system of peer evaluation to prevent free riders. Second, groups should capitalize on whatever forms of diversity might exist among students to enrich their learning experience and prepare them for workplace success.

What does the workplace have to do with this?

Employers look for the ability to work in groups and be a team player, and in today’s world, that means being able to work productively with people who have had varied life experiences and who come from different cultural perspectives.

Scaffolding group projects around individual assignments is alluded to in my previous post; now I’ll focus on designing group work to take advantage of student diversity. I’ll demonstrate this with an example that uses the images I’ve inserted here — Shiseido advertisements from, respectively, 1914, 1926, and 1933 — and a lesson plan taken from the Visualizing Cultures website and modified slightly.

The first step is to construct groups that reflect the diversity of your students, which may1926 Poster not be as easy as it initially seems. While differences in ethnicity might be readily identifiable, what about differences in socioeconomic class, or in sexual orientation? Knowing your students personally is helpful in this regard, but that isn’t always possible, so accept the fact that you’ll most likely be working on the basis of some easily distinguishable categories. In my case, I teach online courses to graduate students whom I distribute into groups according to male-female, U.S.-foreign, and military-civilian dimensions, a system that creates a great deal of diversity.

Each group then has the task of analyzing the three images here according to the Five Cs:

1933 Rouge and Lipstick

  • Context: when was this image made? What is the subject matter? What clues are given for a time frame?
  • Characters: who or what is portrayed in the image? What clues are given about who/what they are?
  • Color: what colors, if any, are used? Were they used solely for visual appeal? What is the mood or tone established by these colors?
  • Composition: what is spatial arrangement of the elements in the image? What is the relationship between them? Are elements juxtaposed against each other? What is the focal point – where is the eye drawn? How does the composition communicate meaning?
  • Construction: someone consciously constructed this image for a purpose. Who would connect with this image? Who would not? Why?

Analysis with the Five Cs can be done either in the classroom or outside of it, but in either case the objective is to get all members of a group to communicate and contribute from their own particular perspectives. For an in-class activity, this might mean forming teams of three and assigning the analysis of each image to a different team member, or teams of five in which each student is responsible for applying only one “C” to all three images. For an out-of-class activity, the same process can be used but with a writing assignment as the product. The collaborative task is for the members of each group to compare and contrast their findings, which can culminate in a presentation to the rest of the class.

I find that these kinds of activities generate plenty of spillover effects, one of which is that I’m able to get students to think about some important ideas in innovative ways without much obvious prompting from me. For example, the course in which I used the Visualizing Cultures curriculum had economic development and social change in Asia as its content focus. I could have lectured repeatedly on the topic, giving example after example to drive the point home, but instead students were able to come at the topic from (what were for them) much more interesting angles, such as, in the case of the project outlined here, changing aesthetics of female beauty in Japan.