I don’t like giving small group work, but I do it because I think it’s important — and I think it’s energizing for students who have social strengths.
But asking kids with varying degrees of social aptitude and executive functionality to get together and accomplish something with relatively little supervision is a little crazy. Even when I assign a more structured collaboration — such as a jigsaw assignment where each student is responsible for an individual part which he or she then shares with a larger group — the quality of contributions varies so widely that it sometimes breeds outspoken frustration and resentment.
I find that the cliché about rock bands holds true for student small groups — that it’s nearly impossible to have a working democracy. Instead, the best groups have the leadership contained in one or two individuals who dictate the direction of the project to the other members of the group.
It makes me wonder if I shouldn’t exploit this model in project assignments. Say, for example, that the main grade for the project falls on one individual. But he or she gets to pick two people to work with — and then also gets assigned another person or two to round out the group. The majority of the group understands that they have largely a supporting role; let’s say the leader gets a say in grading their contribution.
I should say that in reflecting with some of my students today, they generally observed that a group of four is a little too unwieldy, and that they preferred it when the groups were only 2-3 people in size.