Last week and this week, I'm participating in the annual seminar that reviews and (occasionally) amends the curriculum of the core humanities course-sequence at my college. Some of the work that we do is tedious and bureaucratic, but a lot of it includes really interesting sessions on pedagogy, core text discussions, interdisciplinarity and more general strategies for providing students the best "liberal arts" experience we can. This afternoon, we had a session focused on facilitating successful and productive class discussions. Not surprisingly, one of the pedagogical techniques lauded in this session was that of breaking the class into "small groups" for discussion, workshopping, and other such activities. A lot of professors employ this practice in their classrooms, and in almost every single session I have ever attended on pedagogy, "small groups" has been presented as a kind of panacea for all the ills that might befall a class. There's only one problem...
I HATE "small groups." I hate being put into them and I hate putting others into them. I never, EVER use "small groups" in my classes. And I'm starting to think I'm all alone in this.
In sum, here are my problems with "small groups":
(1) I don't find that there is anything that "small groups" can do that I can't do just as well in the "big group" (i.e., the whole class).
(2) Small groups take up too much class-time, and whatever benefits come out of that don't seem equal to the time spent on it.
(3) My experience is that all of the problems that "small groups" are meant to remedy also manifest themselves in "small groups." For example, a lot of people claim that "small groups" are a way to get quiet or shy students to talk. But I find that the dynamics of the "small groups" usually just mirror the dynamics of the large group. Some students in the small group will be more dominant, others will be more passive... just like in discussions that involve the whole class.
(4) I never can figure out what to do with myself during "small group" time. If I just let the groups go about their business without any interference, I feel like I'm not doing anything. (When I was a student and my professor broke us up into small groups, I always had the sneaking suspicion that s/he was unprepared or just taking the day off.) If I walk around the room and oversee their activities, I either feel like, well, an "overseer" or else I feel like I'm doing the same thing I would do if we were all having the discussion together, only in a more disjointed and unorganized way.
(5) When "small groups" report back to the whole class after their time together, I find that the products of their discussions are usually very similar, which makes the ensuing "large group" discussion redundant and repetitive.
And, finally, (6) there's just something about "small groups" that seems very grade-school-y to me. Or, similarly, it seems too corporate-business-model-ish. I have the same feelings about the word (and the practice of) "workshopping." It just feels fundamentally at odds with the vision and the aesthetic that I imagine for my classroom.
I voiced some of these problems in our session (or "workshop", ahem) this afternoon. Our facilitator suggested to me that the problem may be with me, and not with "small groups." He said that most professors' "teaching styles" are aimed at fostering the "learning style" of students who are very much like them when they were students. So, I avoid "small groups" now as a professor because I didn't like them when I was a student. But I should be aware that not everyone learns in the same way, and so I should give "small groups" a chance for the students who might benefit the most from that pedagogical technique.
Okay, so here I am now trying to be open-minded and acknowledge that maybe it is just me. I'm open to hearing other testimonies in favor of "small groups" or accounts of how I have misunderstood what they're all about or how they work best. However, before I concede this point, I'm curious to know: am I really the only one? Isn't there anyone else out there who finds "small groups" difficult to integrate into the classroom or, what's worse, unproductive? In the words of Marvin Gaye:
Can I get a witness?