It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Momma Bear is Grumpy

Time for a completely un-daycare-related rant.

Group Projects. Group projects for 12-year-olds in particular.

My daughter has had two of them this term. In the first, her partner was only available to work on it during the class periods devoted to it, though the teacher had made it clear that more time would be required to do it properly. Despite her repeated efforts, Emma could not arrange an evening or weekend meeting. The other girl had piano lessons, swim lessons, drama practice and tae kwon do. (When does she do homework? When does she get to rest and relax, hang out and do nothing? Poor kid.)

This current project: While Emma and her new partner, Nina, (assigned, not chosen) have managed to get together many times, it is clear from this mother’s perspective that only one of them was producing much of anything. Two nights before the project was due, the girls got together here. At 8:00, they pronounced themselves “done!”, all ready for their presentation.

The following night, Emma was up till 10 – well past her schoolnight bedtime – finishing the t-shirts and the pictures that Nina was to have done, which Nina said she had finished. Items which Emma only discovered were unfinished during school that day.

“Why isn’t Nina doing this?”

Emma rolls her eyes. “Because she has ‘stuff’ to do.”

Okay, then. For this project, Emma has
– made two bristol board displays of pictures,
– decorated two t-shirts,
– compiled a tape of sound samples,
– written a dozen descriptions of instruments and mounted them
– made the answer sheet for the quiz she had designed.

Together, the girls have practiced their spoken presentation, gone to the library to photocopy their answer sheet, and, working at my dining room table with me overseeing, Nina has written five descriptions and made a word-search puzzle.

On her own, Nina has done…


Nothing at all.

When they present, they will both receive the same mark.

I know what group projects are supposed to do. I was a teacher once, remember? They are supposed to teach teamwork, division of labour, problem-solving, all that worthy stuff. However, they simply do NOT teach any of that stuff, without an overseeing adult to guide the children into these lessons. The teacher MUST oversee the division of labour, must, at this level, monitor to see if each child is fulfilling her obligations.

Emma doesn’t have the authority to make Nina produce what she committed to produce. If Nina won’t do it, what is her recourse? Why, the teacher, you say! Wrong. When Emma tried to get some help, the teacher said only “This is a group project. You have to work it out between the two of you.” No guidance provided as to just how this might be accomplished; no helping them through the necessary discussion; no following up to see if they did indeed manage it. Just, “Sort it out on your own.” Well, that’s very helpful.

So what happens when one child refuses to do their share? Obviously, the other child, the one who cares, does it all.

What is Emma learning so far?

She’s learning that she hates group projects.
She’s learning that if she wants something done, she’d best do it herself.
She’s learning not to rely on her classmates.
She’s learning not to rely on the teacher.

In short, she’s learning exactly the opposite of what a group project is supposed to teach.


December 11, 2005 - Posted by | my kids


  1. Thankfully we didn’t have too many group projects at school, but they started to kick in at University. And my findings are the same as yours. Unless you get to pick your own team, then you are guaranteed to end up with at least one slug.

    The lessons learned that you quote are completely correct. While I’m sure that the teacher thought that love, peace and educational advancement might ensue from the assignment, the real lessons were very different.

    So, I must say that I think that group projects are a wonderful thing. No really! They do teach valuable life skills. Of course, the life skills are how to deal with sluggards and ne’er-do-wells. So, just learn to hope for, maybe, 10% effort out of the slug, give them the difficult to get wrong stuff and enjoy the challenge of pulling it all off yourself.

    Group projects are all about making lemonade out of the lemons that you’re handed.

    Comment by Simon P. Chappell | December 11, 2005 | Reply

  2. Simon: I agree. That’s the best you can do, and, in real life, you will always have to deal with slackers. Emma is learning necessary life lessons here.

    However, I think that when teachers in grade school assign group projects, the goal should be twofold: secondarily, to get the children to learn something about a particular subject, but, primarily that children learn to work as part of a team.

    This does not come naturally to most of the human race. It must be taught. A grade-school teacher who assigns a group project, but does not make any attempt to teach these skills is not doing his job.

    This is what offends me in this situation.

    Either the teacher is so naive that he thinks these lessons will blossom naturally without any work on his part (and he has a terrible memory of all the group project he was ever part of), or he’s lazy. Me, I suspect the latter.

    You do not tell grade school children to produce a group project without TEACHING them how to work as part of a group. That’s part of your job.


    Comment by Mary P. | December 11, 2005 | Reply

  3. I had similar group projects as a kid. As a result, now that I supervise a lot of people, my biggest fault is not delegating enough. I do it myself because I’ve found that I tend to care more than others how the finished product looks.

    It makes for some long days, though.

    Comment by Matthew | December 11, 2005 | Reply

  4. What Emma is learning is exactly what I learned. People will always take advantage of the one who is committed to getting the grades. Even at the University it’s the same way, despite promises from professors that they won’t let it be that way, and that the group work will not have a major impact on our final grades, just to let us know the last week of the semester that final GROUP projects are worth over 200 points. Yeah, because that’s not going to affect anything, it’s only like 25% of my grade! To make matters worse, I have about four “Nina’s” in my group, and always have!

    Comment by Angela | December 11, 2005 | Reply

  5. Oh poor Emma. I sympathize. I have never had a good experience with group projects. However, I’ve found that university profs are somewhat better than public school teachers. I have had a few group presentations where one person (or multiple people) were slacking off, and I have gone to the professor with this mentality: I pay for this course, I work hard for my grades, I’m not going to let some idiot ruin that for me. Generally the professors are understanding, and I’ve had a few of them agree to mark the presentations individually, rather than a group mark.
    But still, poor Emma! There’s nothing that can really be done to help her now! And to have her teacher refuse help like that. I’ve never had that situation – not even now when we’re all “adults”.

    Comment by Haley | December 11, 2005 | Reply

  6. When I taught writing, I often had my students work in groups on projects. BUT–each group (of 3-5 students) was REQUIRED, at the end of the project, to evaluate each other, anonymously. These were college students, and as Haley points out, they have a right to get what they paid for and not do the work for someone else’s grade. And while it may sound risky to ask them to comment on their peers’ performance, it tended to work well.

    I would also assign group projects and require that each group divide the individual tasks up and let me know, by a certain date, who was going to do what piece. That way, if someone fell down on the job (no t-shirts were made, for example), I knew who was responsible.

    I’m so sorry for Emma. I think there are teachers who assign group projects in order to get out of their own work, rather than with any idea of teaching students, well, ANYTHING. And that is the worst tragedy.

    Comment by Susan | December 11, 2005 | Reply

  7. Yeah, this is what I hate about group work, and it seems that current educational trends are moving more and more in that direction. You’re so right about the teacher not monitoring/assigning correctly. I’d send her a note, with a copy to the principal, letting her know exactly what happened and why. It’s unfair to put repsponsible kids like your daughter in the position of either babysitting a partner or doing everything themselves.

    I’ve hated the group work in my university courses. I ended up with only one course grade lower than an “A” in my two quarters due to a group project where one woman took over and redid everything everyone else had done on the day it was to be turned in. And her “improved” version wasn’t as good. Aaargh!

    Long rant–sorry. I feel pretty strongly about this myself.

    Comment by Cheryl | December 11, 2005 | Reply

  8. You’re right, the teacher is lazy, and I feel almost as sorry for the other child as I do your overworked daughter.

    What a crock all around.

    Comment by Granny | December 11, 2005 | Reply

  9. Matthew: I think group projects are one of the reasons I’m self-employed!! Any truly intolerable people in my working world, I can kick them out. Doesn’t happen often, but lovely to have the choice!

    Angela: Hardly fair to change the weight of the projects halfway through the semester. But what can you do? In your case, it sounds like you end up doing the work of four in order to get a decent mark. *sigh* (And it won’t necessarily be different once you’re out there in the “real” world…)

    Haley: You’ve always been able to approach teachers with respectful confidence – it’s a good life skill. Emma’s teacher is, I’m quite sure, simply taking the lazy way out.

    Susan: You’ve just shown two good ways to increase the likelihood that a group project be truly a group effort. Why couldn’t he have asked for a list of tasks they’d each agreed to complete? Seems simple enough!

    (Do YOU want to come and be her English teacher??)

    Cheryl: It just occurred to me that group work is probably much more difficult for we individualist westerners than it might be for other cultures – which only strengthens my argument that group skills must be taught.

    It was some time in high school that I decided I’d just have to be the leader in any group project I did. Which generally meant that I ended up doing the bulk of the work – but at least there were no nasty surprises like poor Emma’s last-minute scramble.

    (Your comment wasn’t long – look at the three above yours. Seems everyone feels strongly about this one.)

    Granny: Yup. As I said, “Bah!” This is not good teaching. I was so proud of her, though, working hard all evening with minimal fuss, to get the job done, and done right. That’s my girl!

    Comment by Mary P. | December 11, 2005 | Reply

  10. I see that group projects have not changed much since my days in school. I played the role of your daughter in my day, and I grew to loath group projects. This is the time her teacher needs to give them guidance and make sure everyone in the group is equally involved.

    Comment by adria | December 12, 2005 | Reply

  11. Hello, Adria, and welcome! Have you been here before? I’ve seen you so often over at Susan’s, I can’t be sure. I agree: this is the time the teacher needs to guide them. I see that Susan had a couple of good tactics she used with college students; if it can be done with students of that age, it can be done with 12 year olds!

    Comment by Mary P. | December 12, 2005 | Reply

  12. This post has been removed by the author.

    Comment by Bill | December 12, 2005 | Reply

  13. Sorry for the deleted comment Mary for some reason my browser did not refresh and it read 0 comments. So I posted a comment that basically agreed with everyone’s conclusions.

    That said I had one teacher in school that assigned group work but did not grade it. (and did not tell us that he was not going to grade it) At the time I didn’t understand the rational, but now I do.

    Teaching team work should not come at the expense of a good students grades.

    Mary I think you might like to know the teacher’s – Mr Kingston.

    Comment by Bill | December 12, 2005 | Reply

  14. Back again–you’re exactly right about the “individualist” Westerners. Many times in my classes, profs have mentioned that other cultures are much more “group” oriented than we are, and they have pointed out the positives of group work. There are many good things–I’ve had profs do as Susan did–which makes group work much better!

    Comment by Cheryl | December 12, 2005 | Reply

  15. The GirlChild’s school is all into group projects. They even work on assignments as a group. I hate them too for exactly the same reason you’ve described.

    Comment by M&Co. | December 12, 2005 | Reply

  16. OH MY GOD! I JUST HAD THIS SAME MOTHERF#@!$ING EXPERIENCE AT SCHOOL. In fact I experienced this in grade school, high school, college, and grad school.

    So, all those things Emma has learned so far — I doubt she’ll ever have the opportunity to unlearn them.

    Comment by MIM | December 12, 2005 | Reply

  17. Bill: It’s a strategy that probably annoyed the students at the time, but hindsight has shown you its merits. I’m not quite sure why I like Mr. K so well – my strongest memory is him scaring the sh*t out of me by smacking a yardstick onto my desk so hard it broke. (He was trying to get the attention of one of the louts at the back of the grade five class.)

    Cheryl: I think there are many (positive) things to be learned from group work. What a shame that they are so rarely taught!

    m&co: And what can you do, hmm? Fussing at the teachers – I’ve done my fair share along the way – may or may not be effective. While I resent for Emma’s sake that she’s had to do so much of the work, I’d rather she be that child than the slacker!

    mim: Just as well she’s learning them well – and early, too! …sigh… And as I said to angela, they’re lessons that will apply out there in the “real” world, too, which doesn’t lack its supply of slackers.

    Comment by Mary P. | December 12, 2005 | Reply

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