To return to our imagined argument about the proper nature of schooling (to see the prequels to this argument, see here and here): Traditionalists can argue that not only does the traditionalist educational scheme make philosophical sense, but it makes a great deal of practical sense as well.  In the imaginary progressivist classroom described in the last post, a student left to “inquire” about the history of American chattel slavery “discovered” that slavery was not such a bad deal for the slaves involved.  A horrible and all-too-common result.  But in real classrooms, there is often a much more depressing result from progressivist pedagogy.  A student can only discover such alarming falsehoods if she actually does some inquiring.  Most students, when left to explore intellectual fields, will simply sit down in one comfortable corner and wait until they’re allowed to leave.  That is, without a classroom structure that pushes students toward learning, the vast majority of young people will not learn.  The good news is that they will not uncover any of the intellectual landmines that threaten those students engaged in progressivist “discovery”-oriented pedagogy.  But that is only because they will not uncover any ideas at all.

Consider one of the classroom staples of progressive-style education.  This teaching technique has become such a stereotypical signal of progressive teaching that principals, parents, and other teacher evaluators often give teachers credit for being creative and dynamic if only they use this technique.  At the same time, this method is the bane of every serious student everywhere.  It is the method every lazy student loves and every earnest nerd hates.  It is “group work.”

The philosophy of group work is compelling.  In the traditional classroom scheme, the teacher stood at the front of the class and delivered information.  The students sat in orderly rows and tried their hardest to absorb that information.  Periodically, the teacher would ask the students a series of questions about the information.  Students were graded on the amount of that information they could successfully regurgitate.

Progressivist educators asked themselves, what is the point of such rigid teaching?  Students don’t actually learn much; they only memorize and spit back dry facts.  Even worse, for progressives, is the social lesson that this kind of teaching ingrains.  Students don’t learn the material, but they do learn that their role in society is to passively accept the dictates of authority, without appeal.  This scheme trains subjects, not citizens.

Instead, progressives advocated group work, among other things.  One benefit would be that students would have more chance to really learn material by discussing it and working with it first hand.  Just as important, they would internalize the notion that they are important members of society.  Their voices deserve to be heard.

Sounds good.  But in practice, the method of group work means that the cruelties of the playground are brought into the classroom and passed off as modern teaching techniques.  Instead of having an educated caring adult leading a classroom discussion, that discussion is left in the hands of children.  It doesn’t take a belief in original sin to understand that children can be cruel.  They can show a finely developed sense of social combat.  And putting them into less supervised groups in order to work on classroom ideas simply abdicates the basic responsibility of teaching.

In those groups, no learning takes place.  At best, the students merely look sheepishly at one another, talking about things of more interest to them: sports, TV, music, social events.  If there is one student who is earnestly trying to complete the assignment the group has been given, she must usually work in vain to interest her fellow students.  That role should not be foisted off onto students.  It is the job of a teacher to compel students to get some learning done, not of one hapless and well-meaning student.

At worst, time in a group is time to fine tune the playground staples of ostracism and groupthink.  As progressivist educators argue, working in a group does allow students to practice their social skills.  But instead of the naïve progressivist assumption that students would work diligently together and learn the value of democratic citizenship, students hone their existing social skills into cutting weapons that are used against the least proficient members of the assigned group.

In other words, progressivists assume that young people need to learn social skills.  They don’t.  Young people have keen social skills.  They group together in packs and cliques with predictable precision.  What young people lack is the intellectual, moral, and spiritual maturity to stand up to those bullies who would pick on the weakest members of the group in order to get a quick boost to their own social status.  As a result, placing students in a group forces them instantly to renegotiate their social rank, their playground pecking order.  It forces the socially strongest to pick on the weakest in order to shore up their status.  And those in the middle usually watch the abuse unfold, unwilling to stand up to it in case it turns on them.  We do not see democracy in microcosm.  What we see is a tiny totalitarianism.

Of course, this kind of cruel ganging-up doesn’t happen in every classroom group.  But just as it is the intellectual role of a teacher to guide students along a very narrow path of truth, so it is the teacher’s role to ensure that every member of the classroom feels safe and encouraged to learn.  By assigning students to groups and assuming they are capable of the very adult task of learning together, teachers act irresponsibly.  At best, they waste students’ time by forcing them to chat together without any real learning going on.  At worst, teachers give up their role as shepherd and protector and abandon their less socially gifted students to the merciless rule of the adolescent social scene.




John Dewey, Experience and Education (New York: Free Press, 1997); Dewey, The School and Society & The Child and the Curriculum (, 2011); Arthur Bestor, Educational Wastelands (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1953); Max Rafferty, Classroom Countdown (Hawthorn Books, 1970); Jay E. Adams, Back to the Blackboard (Evangelical Press, 1982).

Previous Post
Leave a comment


  1. I want to pick up where Adam says, “Of course, this kind of cruel ganging-up doesn’t happen in every classroom group.” The lesson, “it is the teacher’s role to ensure that every member of the classroom feels safe and encouraged to learn” is the philosophy that needs to be connected to group work practice, by students and teachers, the lead learners. It is the teacher who imparts to the learners the purpose of working in groups, setting the ground rules for the task in front of students. I shall illustrate what I mean through my own practice when I decide to let students work in groups on a task.

    I believe the group is a space for peers to support one another, for a particular task, say the format of a term paper. The lesson, in this anecdote, concerns isolating a bibliography on a topic. I share with the learners a series of abstracts, asking every student to isolate those citations that speak to the topic that I introduce. Then, I have the students work in a group to discuss the abstracts and emerge with a question that is connected to the abstracts available on the topic. The purpose of the group project is twofold, to discuss scholarly work and craft a question, relying on the support of every group member to understand the process of scholarly work. Then, the students must report back to their colleagues, understanding that the exercise is designed to tap into students’ strengths while learning, with the support of their peers, the development of a paper as it takes shape (i.e., having a topic, sorting through abstracts to craft a tentative bibliography of scholarly work to read further, and developing a question to test in the available literature).

    The lesson in learning that I want to share here is that group work is possible, if the teacher serves as a facilitator. The question that the teacher wants the students to probe is as important as the ground rules the teacher sets for the practices of the students who work in a group. Of course, the process before the knowledge takes shape, in the presentation from the group, is not necessarily well studied and so it remains to be seen if such techniques as the above really do break with the hierarchy of the “adolescent social scene” :-).

  2. Yasha Hartberg

     /  December 2, 2011

    Group work need not be so grim as you suggest. Yes, it frequently is implemented badly and that is something that ought to be addressed. However, your analysis throws the baby out with the bathwater (and belies a rather dark attitude towards human nature, or at least children’s nature, I might add). I agree that group work is ill conceived if its ultimate goal is to teach children “social skills.” As you point out, children are constantly doing that anyway. At the same time, though, it’s hard to see how working together with others to achieve a common goal isn’t a fundamental skill that children need to master in order to become competent adults. Furthermore, it’s difficult to imagine how they could develop those skills without practice, practice that will include dealing with all the ugly social realities of group dynamics.

    Where educators so often fail in assigning group work is that they focus too much on the task at hand and too little on all the problems that must be overcome if groups are to have any chance of functioning well. Perhaps educators who use group work would do well to acquaint themselves with Elinor Ostrom’s design principles for successful resource management. For instance, the most frequent complaint I hear from students when I ask them about their experiences with group work is that most often there is no accountability built into the projects for individual contributions. Without effective monitoring of individual behavior (design principle 4) or without sanctions to punish freeloading (design principle 5) it’s hardly any wonder that a few people end up doing most of the work while everyone else gets a free ride (a violation of design principle 2). It becomes the role of the educator, then, to ensure that accountability is built into the system as well as mechanisms for conflict resolution. Failure to do so is, indeed, irresponsible and leads almost inevitably to the kinds of outcomes you describe.

    • Yasha,
      Great points. For the record, I agree that the problem is not so much with the principle of group work, but rather with the details of its implementation. As a middle-school, high-school, and now university teacher I have relied extensively on group work and will continue to do so. Your suggestion that teachers must structure the group work in such a way as to maintain both interaction and individual accountability is key. Very hard to do, but also worth the time and effort, in my opinion.
      As with all these posts, I was speaking in something of the role of the devil’s advocate. But I don’t want to hide behind that to avoid responsibility for these arguments. I think traditionalists’ complaints against the practice of group work go deeper than the practical problems with its implementation, and I think they make important points for all teachers to consider, wherever we find ourselves in relation to the ‘culture-war’ divide.
      First of all, I think some traditionalists are leery of the entire bundle of pedagogy that comes along with the notion of “progressive” education, group work being one central pedagogical principle of that notion. That is, the idea of divesting teachers of their roles as classroom authorities is anathema to the notion of traditionalist education, and group work is one important pedagogical practice that helps teachers do that. Thus, it is not necessarily out of ignorance or hot-temperedness that leads traditionalists to throw out the baby of group work along with the bathwater of progressive pedagogy. In the opinion of traditionalist educators, that baby is exactly what they want to throw out, since they know it will grow into a monster. For traditionalists, classrooms must remain–or become–hierarchical environments in which young people are trained by older and wiser leaders, not places in which young people be encouraged to explore their own ideas.
      This leads to the second point. As you mention, the argument I put forth in my initial post displayed a dark view of human nature. I think that is a central issue here. The meanings of “traditionalism” and “progressivism” may be hard to define. But at the heart of the difference, in my opinion, is a deep difference in core beliefs about the nature of humanity. Traditionalists in education, religion, and culture, at least if they are thoughtful about it, tend to start with the notion that humanity is flawed. For Christians, this is expressed in the central theological and ontological notion of Original Sin. Progressives, on the other hand, tend to view human nature in much more optimistic terms. Humans, in the progressive view, have almost infinite potential for goodness, but are thwarted, perverted, and abused by irrational and cruel social systems that benefit only the social elite.
      This has big implications for education. Not that every traditionalist or progressive educational activist thinks of it in these terms, but one’s most fundamental ideas about the nature of people, including young people, must have a huge impact on one’s notions of proper classroom practice. In this case, I think group work becomes a target for traditionalist education for two reasons. First, they can criticize it in practice, as I tried to do in my original post. But behind those practical consideration looms much bigger ideas about what teachers and students ought to be doing in classrooms.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: