Social Loafing 

This post originally appeared on a different forum a couple of years ago:

Since my last post, I have been involved in lots of discussions on Twitter about group work. I have begun to wonder whether some people think that I actually coined the term ‘social loafing’. Quite the contrary; social loafing is a well investigated phenomenon. However, few teachers know about it.

In fact, nobody ever taught me about social loafing. Group work was always encouraged as a ‘good in itself’ when I was training although I did notice how scarce it was in the classrooms of effective teachers in my placement schools. No, I only found out about social loafing research about a year ago. And I came to it by thinking about meetings.

I know that you wouldn’t want your mum, friend or partner to say this, but I can get away with it because I am a teacher myself: Teachers have an extraordinary ability to spew forth platitudes in meetings and at great length. You know the sort of thing; “We need to put the children at the centre of what we do.” Really? I was going to go with jam, “We need to develop agency.” How, exactly? And my favourite deepity of all, “We need to engage our learners in learning how to learn.”

So it was in the midst of one such meeting that I began to wonder whether there was any research on the effectiveness of, well, meetings. At home, I took to Google Scholar and found that there was.

There is a quite wonderful experiment that has been conducted many times in different contexts. You give people a brainstorming task to do. There are certain rules that are followed; for instance, there should be no evaluation of ideas in case this causes people to withhold. You then ask some participants to brainstorm alone whereas you place others in groups. The results are quite clear; more unique ideas are generated by four people working individually than by a group of four. The disparity increases with group size. All of the obvious variations have been performed and the obvious questions tested, such as whether group ideas are better. But the findings are robust; groups do less useful work than the same number of individuals.

This is easy to understand. Thinking is difficult and we do whatever we can to avoid it. I am a maths teacher but if the calculator is out on my desk it is hard for me to not use it. Groups provide us with cover to slack off. This is social loafing. Most research papers are concerned with how to mitigate this effect; making individual group members personally responsible, for instance, seems to help. However, it apparently does this by making group work more like individual work.

Slavin does something similar when he writes about group work. He undoubtedly is of the view that group work is effective and that there is research evidence to support this. However, he also spends a lot of time on how to do it right; how to mitigate the well-known problems.

But – here’s a thought – perhaps we can avoid the negative effects of group work by simply not doing group work. What would we lose? I suspect we would not lose a great deal. Collaboration can be very powerful but, if this is what you want, I would suggest experimenting with short, controlled periods of paired work. There is also a lot of talk about learning certain skills through group work such as ‘tolerance’. Perhaps, in a group-work free world, children would not develop such skills?

Although you might be able to instruct students in a few basic heuristics such as ‘wait your turn’, tolerance is not essentially a skill. It is a judgement based upon knowledge and it is not always a good thing. Tolerance of racism from one of your group-mates, for instance, would be a bad thing as far as I am concerned. How can we educate children about this? We teach them history and science so that they can form their own judgements. And we teach these subjects as effectively as we can. Trying to teach tolerance as a ‘skill’ implies that the teacher makes these judgements on the students’ behalf.

It’s not even as if social loafing is the only problem associated with group work. What about the problems of having to orchestrate the class with all this group work going on? The teacher’s time is split between groups so he or she will often have to keep repeating the same things. Also, how do we know that the students collaborating in a group at the back of the room are not cementing and reinforcing common errors and misconceptions? We probably won’t find out quickly and so undoing these issues will make the learning less efficient.

Of course, that nice, small class of eighteen-year-olds who have opted to study Philosophy may well seem to take to group work. In fact, the learning may be almost as effective as in a more didactic style. Perhaps the variation that it offers may even, through increased motivation, make up for its other shortcomings. Perhaps.

I remain to be convinced.


10 thoughts on “Social Loafing 

    • Indeed. If a task *requires* a group response then a group is appropriate. For instance, I would have not been able to assemble my daughter’s cubby house alone – it required someone else to support the various panels as I joined them. It is interesting to speculate how many group tasks set in school actually require a group response. It is also interesting to consider the relative importance of completing a task as opposed to learning something. If you need to know how to do all of something, completing only a part of it would be insufficient.

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  2. Ann in L.A. says:

    I’ve long thought the best way to achieve the skills that teachers are aiming at with group work is to increase the free play time kids have.

    One of the most cooperative things a kid can do is make up a fantasy with another kid or group:

    Hey, let’s play space!
    Okay, I want to be an alien with a big green head.
    I want to be the captain!
    Let’s fly to the planet Quanza.
    No, let’s call it Flibber.
    Okay, Flibber, then.
    Hey, there should be poisonous lakes there, where you dissolve if you touch them.

    Listening, cooperating, tolerating, learning when to hold firm and when to yield, figuring out how to deal when someone is bossy or mean, learning forgiveness (Day 1: Billy’s not my friend anymore! Day 5: Can Billy come over?)

    It’s all there in a simple game of pretend.

    If young kids get enough of that kind of cooperative play, they won’t need all the group projects later to teach them how to work together; they’ll already know how.

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