Teamwork: Annoying AND essential


Should high school students work in teams — or solo?

When I was a student, we did about 90 percent of our work alone. With the exception of lab work in science and the occasional English group project, we were expected to learn independently, so we would be prepared for individual success later.

Back then, working together — even asking a classmate for help — always carried the taint of cheating.

After all, you don’t get into college or get a job as a team. The important thing was individual achievement.

But something changed on the way to the 21st Century. Even by the time I entered the workforce in 1989, management everywhere was talking about teams, teams, teams.

Suddenly, employees had to not only have the requisite content knowledge for their job — but also know how to communicate, collaborate, argue effectively, involve everyone, incorporate diverse perspectives and deal with slackers. It wasn’t easy to adjust.

Most adults (including me) have spent a lot of time since high school complaining about teamwork. It seems no one ever carries their share of the load; no one recognizes our expertise; and we’re all tired of hearing the know-it-all’s nit-picky perspective on every single issue.

But here’s the thing. Experts (like the leaders at Google) have researched this issue to death, and they have found that effective teams are far more productive than individual stars. And the best teams often don’t contain any stars.

Being valedictorian doesn’t really count for much in most workplaces today.

So what does that mean for us? Does this whole “team” thing really translate to school? And if so, how?

For years, I’ve heard so much frustration from parents and students about group work — you know, the kind that really becomes solo work with a bunch of free riders.

Is it really fair for a group to drag a bright student down? Won’t it be different in the workplace, when everyone is at least competent?

Last week, at the Minnesota Council on Economic Education’s trade show for young entrepreneurs, several 20something entrepreneurs tackled this question. Surprisingly, to many students in the audience, these individual stars championed group work.

Erik Brust, founder of JonnyPops, and Meghan Sharkus, founder of ExpressionMed, agreed that working on group projects in high school is really frustrating. But guess what? So is working with teams in the real world. You never escape the free rider problem, and your team members will always let you down.

And yet, teamwork works. It’s necessary. So students, you might as well learn how now.

For teachers, though, this is not as easy as just putting kids in groups. Not any old team works. Teachers need to figure out how to build effective student teams, in ways that reduce that tension between group effort and individual understanding.

I think the answer lies in carefully creating our student teams, teaching them about effective communication and collaboration, and monitoring their performance.

When I assigned my AP Macro students to teams this year — teams we use every single day for discussing and working on problems — I started with a teamwork survey to better understand each student’s individual work habits and expectations.

I wasn’t so concerned about their academic skills; I’ve read studies that promote heterogeneous grouping and ones that promote homogeneous grouping. Instead, I wanted to know things like: Are you a leader or a slacker? Do you do your part? Do you try to take over? And how often do you get distracted?

So far, the resulting groups have been functioning pretty well. I’ve only noticed one group with bad dynamics (one student expecting the others to do the work), and I think I persuaded that student to get with the program. (We’ll see.)

Next week, we’ll also see how the no lecture + teamwork strategy has prepared them for the first test. 

If you’re interested in seeing the teamwork survey, email me at

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. Listen to Martha’s interview with Vicki Davis on the CoolCatTeacher podcast. @MarthaSRush