The Taboo-Side of Group Work in Foreign Language Teaching

Group work at universities: a peremptory demand by industry and commerce

In 1982, when I was a guest reader at Hannover University, I was struck by the so-called “group work”. The way it was done did not make any sense to me. The answer to this riddle I got straight from the horse’s mouth, when I asked a native-speaker lecturer about it. She had been a witness of the times, saying that industry and commerce had asked all universities to implement group work in order to better prepare students for their future jobs. The curricula in all disciplines were obligingly changed in a rush and no-one has ever bothered to look at the way group work is actually done.

Putting the cat among the pigeons, I will start my discussion with a rather contradictory sentence I found a few years ago in the classified ad section of a broad sheet newspaper:

“Employees of the sales department have the opportunity to prove themselves on their own in a highly competitive market while aware that success can only be achieved as a team.”

I must confess I am guilty of palliating the rather harsh sounding German original, which is:
“As employee of … you are an individual fighter in a highly competitive market…”

This statement reflects the whole fundamental dilemma of “group work” as it has been practiced in preparation for occupational and professional careers all over the world in schools and universities for more than 30 years. However, in the mid-seventies – shortly after the implementation of group work in schools and universities, a devastating study was published in the “Harvard Business Review” by two scientists, purporting that in the business world or in management starting at supervisory level, hardly any work was done in groups in the way it was practiced in schools and universities.

The most striking difference between theory and practice is that at schools and universities, groups are peer groups, that is, group members forming a group are all of the same rank, trying to solve problems in a “democratic” way. Interminable discussions often go on in round-about ways about incidental issues. In foreign language classes, error-swapping becomes the most notable of all activities and, together with peer editing, group discussions and game playing contributes to a phenomenon I have dubbed “local linguistic inbreeding”. In task-oriented group work,  none of the group members has the formal authority to assign tasks, follow up on them, discipline laggards, and evaluate the individual group member’s contribution to the project work. The role of the professor or teacher is in most cases reduced to handing out the task to the group and making sure that only the target language is spoken throughout with some of these teachers engaging in the latter with a kind of pathetic rigour. The group will then divide the task and sort out the details among themselves without further follow-ups or close supervision by the professor or teacher, giving spongers ample opportunities to reap the benefit of the groups` achievement without ever doing a single stroke of work at home. Conversely, in class, some basic grasp of core issues and key phrases enable them to pass themselves off as diligent and expert students on the subject without the professor ever noticing.

Group work is often used in assessing leadership potential of participants or their ability to get along with people in assessment centres where it has its justified due place. However, in the day to day operation of companies, subordination rather than creative contributions is more likely to be expected from the individual group members or staff.

Apart from this, in the real world, there is always a manager or department head in charge whenever he or she calls a meeting for any purpose. This superior head of department has the formal authority to give direction if not plain orders. Subordinate group members, to use this term for the sake of comparison, have a predefined area of work for which they have been hired and are solely responsible for. Tasks are assigned by unconcealed instructions by the group member of the highest rank and not by discussing endlessly who is going to do what and how it should be done. Every single subordinate group member has to rely on him- or herself when it comes to accomplishing a particular task with the exception of the odd non-committal peer consulting.

Following-up on assigned tasks, controlling, and final evaluation of the individual group member’s contribution is done by the manager by virtue of his formal authority he has been invested with. He ensures that only the individual is finally held responsible for the quality of any work assigned to him or her rather than punish the group summarily for the poor performance of one or two underachievers. Conversely, high achievers do not need to share their success with those who do not merit it.

I think that it was rather the communication skills managerial and supervisory staff need in meetings which had been mistakenly dubbed “group-work” way back in the seventies. To me it is not surprising that no one ever seems to have questioned “procedures”. Maybe it is to do with the “authority-syndrome” and I cannot help thinking of Dr. Fox, the actor who had been hired to deliver speeches which did not make any sense without anyone noticing.

Today, you find group work in both schools and university across the board in all disciplines. Not surprisingly, also in foreign languages. It is the mainstay of the Communicative Teaching Method or CTM is group work and plays an important part in Dr. Joachim Grzega`s artificial and mutilated invention, namely his Basic Global English method. For the past three decades, almost everything is done in groups, be that discussions, joint writing of texts of any kind or communal text appreciation; cooperative poetry analysis or collective grammar and vocabulary exercises. What the heck have group-work and the ensuing discussions with non-native speakers of English got to do with the acquisition of a foreign language when there are much better role models and methods around?

There are other downsides to group work, as well. For instance, when doing work in a group that requires your utmost attention, you may get distracted by frequent and often superfluous interruptions or overbearing interferences. Or oneself feels obliged to consult the other members of the group for the sake of asking a question or the opinion of the others just because this is what is expected of you in group work. My observations made over many years seem to confirm my assumptions.

In order to illustrate my arguments, I can give a few examples from the vast storehouse of my experience. The daughter of an acquaintance of mine had been a straight “A” student for four consecutive terms. When she could no longer put off attending university courses which required her to do group work, she was alarmed, fearing that her good performance might be tarnished by a mediocre “B” grade the group might receive for the plain fact that spongers, less interested and also average students might bring down her impressive performance. Fortunately, it did not turn out that way in this instance, but the following example is a convincing case in which a teacher was unable to judge the individual group members` performances because most preparatory work had to be done at home.

I remember a case when a professor made some deprecating remarks about one of our group members. She wrongly assumed that the student in question had hardly done any work while in fact the student was the key player in that she had prepared all the nitty-gritty work of research and summarized her findings expertly and handed them to two spongers on a platter. If I had not had the chance to point out that it was in fact that very student who contributed to the group’s success the most, the student’s final evaluation would most likely have been downgraded because of this mistaken perception on the part of the teacher. Go-to guys sometimes remain behind the scenes out of modesty, as in this case, which can lead to devastating assessments by professors and teachers. Oral activity in the classroom is not necessarily an indicator of a group member’s true contribution to the work of the entire group.

Another example is the case of a group of about ten people, which had been formed impromptu during a literature class at university. One student was to hold a short lecture on the outcome of our discussion on a set of questions, which proved to be a sort of “mission impossible”. Nevertheless, no-one realized this. The student in question was to take minutes of the individual contributions to the group discussion while guiding the group through a set of questions. Then, she was to analyse her minutes on her own for a couple of minutes before presenting the consensus ideas to the whole class. No one realized that she presented her own ideas prepared in some detail at home against said set of questions.

During the group discussion, she would steam-roll across all ideas which deviated from those she had prepared. After a couple of minutes of refreshing her memory, she read her notes off three closely written pages – those notes she had entirely prepared at home. None of the arguments put forward during the group discussion by participants – some of these differed widely from hers – was mentioned in her oral summary to the entire class. Since ideas on literature tend to be highly subjective, no-one actually realized that the excellent lecture she delivered was solely her work, her very own analysis. If someone else noticed what she had actually done, he or she kept quiet with the professor beaming as she had gone by “The Book” and “made the group talk”. You cannot blame the student who delivered the lecture, resolute as it was. If your marks or evaluation were dependent on this “sort” of group work, would you have done otherwise?

Peer editing is another common group activity although in this case it is done on a smaller scale, namely in pairs. There is no denying that your non-native editor may spot the odd awkward passage or the odd mistake. But in most cases, he or she may not be very helpful in remedying fundamental short-comings. Rather, error swapping among the non-native participants is more common. If the students are lucky, a native speaker teacher checks and prepares the text so that it can be saved on your “brain-hard-disk-drive”.

Generally speaking, there is a dangerous implication in the failure to recommend native-speaker editing in that language students are made to believe that their English is a native-speaker-like UK or US English and does not need editing.

To revert to the two distinguished scientists who had established that group work did not actually happen in companies in the same way it was done in the classroom: their finding did not surprise me at all. It coincided with my experience that the only time two or more heads of department ever worked together on a joint project on equal footing was when it came to organising the annual Christmas binge party.

Come to think of it: What might Sigmund Freud have said about the educators` preoccupation with “group work”? I would not be surprised if he had diagnosed “group work” as a sort of sublimation, the sort you would think he might be interested in.

There is no trick to being a satirist when you have so many people working for you.

About this posting

This posting is part of a series dedicated to topics dealing with various aspects of the English language which usually get short shrift on the internet and in other publications. It is, in a wider sense, concerned with the English language crumbling into incomprehensibility at alarming speed and how society is influenced by it. How do schools and universities react and in what way is literature affected by all this? Furthermore, how do people working in education and linguistics cope with this avalanche of “Local English neologisms”?

What often sounds like modern Pidgin English can generally be put down to neo-pidginicity. It is an artificially accelerated and manipulated process – or rather linguistic genetic engineering – of attempting to oversimplify Standard English, the result of which is in all cases some sort of Neo Pidgin English or Simplified-Simple-Speak. Four major fields of contact contribute to the gradual encroachment on Standard English: Basic Global English, as advocated by Dr. Joachim Grzega, machine translations of any kind, unedited documents and publications – frequently of international validity – being passed off as standard English but in fact written by non-native speakers of English, the acceptance of “Local English” and non-native speakers of English teaching their version of “Local English”. The result of the English “produced” in all these areas of contact is often, at best, a barely elevated Pidgin English.

And to compound matters, Globish appears to become a composite haphazard mixture of all about 180 Local Englishes and may for that very reason not be as easy as some people think once it has evolved into a sub-language of Standard English.

Finally, it would be interesting to see the first book written in Basic Global English, Dr. Joachim Grzega`s novel and daring invention and see in which section bookshops will display such a work of art.


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