Thinking back to school, there are few examples that would get a more consistent and collective groan than group projects. Enthusiasm for group projects seemed inversely correlated to the amount of work a particular groupmate intended to do. And participation in the project somehow guaranteed that members would devolve into some sort of destructive stereotype: the dictator, the slacker, the martyr, the lone wolf, or the sidetracked enthusiast. Most kids wonder why – in the interest of grades, fairness, and personal sanity – projects can’t just be done individually. We all look at the end of high school as the day that we will no longer have to artificially trust a random classmate with our grade. But no…

Everything is a group project. Running and fixing machines on a factory floor? Group project. Planning a road trip with your friends? Group project. Living in a house with roommates? Managing a team of editorial interns? Parenting? Group projects. And getting a rover to Mars? That is a project with a group of hundreds. It may be too lofty a mission to convince students that group projects have not been designed as torture specifically for them, but maybe we can start framing the resulting conversations as useful skills rather than necessary evils just to get the grade they want in the end. And learning at the expense of a project grade is better than learning when one of your colleagues arrives in another country without the proper visa and nowhere to stay.

One of the biggest ways that group work changes with age is that it becomes a necessity rather than an artificial construct. A single person cannot reasonably design and build a bridge. One roommate cannot clean for a house of five without eventual consequences. A biologist cannot send samples to the International Space Station without working with engineers, computer scientists, and the experts in ground control. Adults still fall back on the same stereotypes, but the difference is that they can’t just wait a few weeks for the problem to go away. That martyr who cleans the whole house just so that it is done will still live with you after they burn out in a fit of depression or rage. That lone wolf who refuses to come to group meetings and insists on writing the code in their own way will eventually have to re-do the work in the collective format or face the music when their contribution is deemed too much effort to even use. That dictator will have to answer to management when their entire team quits just before a deadline. These stereotypes come out for a reason, and dealing with those reasons is the only way to collaborate in the long term. 

But the best lessons I learned about getting through these rough patches didn’t come from watching my peers. The lessons came from all the times I came to embody those stereotypes myself. The evolution was hardly isolated. The lone wolves and sidetracked enthusiasts in my groups have turned me into a dictator. I have tried to be the martyr to protect a project and a team I cared about from a dictator’s wrath. And the whole time, not one of us was happy. In one instance, I saw myself as more of a crusader than a sidetracked enthusiast. I told myself that if only I could explain my perspective correctly, they would see the value in the thing I was trying to do. Yes, I was spending more time on this line of inquiry than was strictly necessary, but once they saw the potential, they would understand. Just you wait. It took an honest conversation about the priorities of the project for me to be able to look at my pet interest in the context of our shared goals and see that it would have to wait until later. That conversation was far more effective than any finger wagging or scoldy orders from above.

My stint as a group slacker provided especially vital lessons. As a middle schooler, it was easy to write off the group slacker. I told myself that even if I had put in the effort to include them, they wouldn’t have bothered to contribute. And then I ended up on a team where my messages went unanswered for weeks, the last-minute and high-priority work I had stayed up all night to do was never even used, the vision for the project would change without consulting or informing the team, and all memories of approving early versions of work were apparently lost when declaring that the final version was in no way what they had asked for. I stopped trying. If anyone had asked me, I wouldn’t have described myself as a slacker. I would have called myself hopeless, unmotivated, or incapable of doing my work. But in telling a colleague about how useless I felt, she followed up by pointing out how useless to the group that had led me to become. We had to have a very frank conversation about what would have to change on both sides to preserve the collaboration.

Students will probably always find group projects frustrating, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Without that friction, there would never be a reason to become a better communicator. Watching a group fall apart in slow motion teaches lessons about how to prevent future breakdowns. And yes, it is also important to learn that even with the best communication some collaborations will not work well in the long term. Just as important as learning how to fix a collaboration is learning to recognize when the healthiest option is to step away. Each of us has a martyr or sidetracked enthusiast just beneath the surface, and learning to recognize the triggers that bring them out will serve all of us well beyond the walls of middle school.