[Editor’s Note: This school year, many students are learning online and at home–which is uniquely challenging. In this #schoolathome series, we are asking: What difference does Jesus make in our new normal? How can we live out this season well? To not just survive, but thrive? We hope you discover some helpful and practical tips along the way.]

The Truth about Working Together

“Ugh! Another group project!” 

If you moaned this among friends, it would receive vigorous agreement. Heads would nod, and someone might reply, “Tell me about it—this term I have five groups!” Of course, during COVID, you’ll have to complain to your mom instead. It seems profs are eager to assign group work and students are just as eager to avoid such projects. Evidently, these two groups (pun unintended) are not seeing things the same way. 

From a student’s perspective, it’s easy to imagine that teachers prefer group projects because it requires less marking. But from the perspective of a good teacher, group assignments are an essential part of education. The truth about working together might surprise you. 

Let’s face it: most of the content we learn in class could be discovered on the internet—hello Wikipedia! So a quality teacher will hopefully not just transfer content into your brain but give opportunities to develop skills—skills like working well with other human beings. 

Every group project is an opportunity to grow as a person and as a professional. It’s a chance to improve: 

  • Written and verbal communication among colleagues
  • Organization of self and others
  • Delegation
  • Project management and workflow
  • Conflict resolution and rapport building

You can talk about such skills, but to know them, you’ll actually need to do them. Maybe it’s time to give your group projects the benefit of the doubt, because truthfully, they may be teaching more important lessons than your textbooks ever will. 

School is the best opportunity to learn these lessons: it’s a safe place to fail. Which might not feel true with grades on the line, but compared to having paychecks, careers, and maybe lives at risk, the stakes on an assignment are much lower. 

Even during a pandemic, collaboration is still important. Gaining group-work skills doesn’t need to be put on pause. Besides, who knows? You might end up working from home long-term, requiring similar collaboration across the internet.

Of course, yes, it may be true that some professors might use group projects as a way to reduce their workload. But rather than trying to discern the instructor’s intention, as a student, it’s more helpful to consider: What do you hope to get out of your group projects? What can they teach you? 

The Goodness of Groups

Beyond cultivating a useful skill set, group projects have the potential to bring great goodness into the world. By bringing together unique individuals, the horizon of possibility expands, sometimes in unexpected ways. By working together, new things—ideas, systems, products—come into being, things that otherwise would not be. Creativity compounds. Individuals can indeed produce good things themselves, but there is an exponential power when people pull together. If there were no group efforts, the world would contain less goodness. 

By bringing together unique individuals, the horizon of possibility expands, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Yes, in the context of a first-year chemistry course, a group might not be doing groundbreaking work for the sake of science. But they do have the capacity to hand in an excellent assignment, which is a goodness in and of itself. And group projects are not just a phenomenon of the education system. There will be plenty of opportunities to collaborate throughout your life, creating good things along the way, things like:

  • A useful app as you partner with entrepreneurial friends to launch a start-up
  • A beautiful garden as you volunteer with local horticulturalists
  • A welcoming online Bible study as you mentor others with your church
  • A more equitable public policy as you work with colleagues in an HR department
  • A nurturing home environment as you cultivate hospitality with your spouse or housemates
  • Maybe even an important vaccine as you collaborate with professors and other researchers from around the world. 

It might be surprising to think of these as group projects, but by doing so, group assignments are normalized, rather than just something to get through. Group work is not a forced educational exercise, but one of the clearest forms of reality. 

This reality of life as a collaboration is grand enough to extend beyond humanity and into the divine. At least in the Christian narrative, not only are humans invited to work with each other, but God invites humans to work with him on his project of renewing all things. This God is very interested in restoration, but not without involving others in the healing work. Though there are stories of him providing food straight from heaven, the normal way humans get food is by growing, harvesting, and preparing it for each other. Though there are stories of God instantly healing sickness and injury, the normal way humans recover is through the care of others. 

The efforts of a group can be a microcosm of renewal, a participation in the larger goodness of restoration that is happening now, and one day will be completed. It’s worth pondering: What do you want to help bring into the world? What do you want to contribute?

It’s especially worth considering these questions now, when the normal ways of preparing to contribute to the world (i.e. getting an education) are disrupted. Perhaps this pause is a good gift too. 

Of course, not all groups will create good and beneficial things. Some group efforts tend towards damage, rather than repair. The question however is not if a group will bring something into the world, but what. Even the most dysfunctional groups are creating something—though it might only be feelings of stress, anger, or fear! When a group doesn’t complete their assignment or succeed in their task, they have still brought something into the world as much as the process itself has touched the lives of the group members. The question then becomes Is it beautiful? 

The Beauty of being Interdependent

The benefit of group work is found in how it can teach valuable skills. The goodness of group work is in how it blesses humanity with innovations and outcomes. The beauty of group work is how it transforms the individual members of the group. 

It seems that the best collaboration happens at the speed of relationships. That is, the better people know each other, the more effectively they will work together. And as people see and know each other, transformation slowly happens. 

Group work has the capacity to not merely shape what you can do, or what you can produce, but who you are as a person. It can help form your character towards:

  • Respect as you listen to the opinions and ideas of others
  • Kindness as you speak with tact 
  • Patience as you accommodate each others’ schedules 
  • Perseverance as you motivate each other to keep going
  • Humility as you realize your limitations
  • Grace and forgiveness as you come across the limitations of others

These qualities come with time, but also with intentionality. Which might look like really seeking to see the inner beauty of your group members. Other people are awesome, with unique personalities, perspectives, and passions worth enjoying, if not learning from. Working together—regardless of the skills that may or may not be developed, or the outcomes that may or may not come to fruition—is valuable in and of itself. 

Group projects are beautiful because they help us become beautiful people. As our characters are tested and molded by those you are currently working with in school (or in countless other settings), it is worth asking Who—not what, but who—do you want to be? 

It’s easy to groan when assigned to work with others. But please don’t overlook the truth, goodness, and beauty that group projects can offer. 

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About the Author

Sam Robins

Sam loves writing reflections on life and faith, whether as articles, short stories, poetry, or even as academic papers at McMaster Divinity College, in Hamilton, ON. When not writing or reading, you’ll probably find Sam exploring some kind of outdoor space, preferably on a bicycle in the city or in work boots on a farm.

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