Team Projects vs. Solo Projects
To allow students to work in a group, or to have them do it solo; that is the question. This is not just a social studies teacher issue, but one that transcends all disciplines and stretches far back into our collective memory as teachers. Everyone has an opinion on this, and many teachers will tell you that they ALWAYS do some strategy because they had a positive or negative experience at some point.
Honestly, like most educational strategies, what you do depends on the students, curriculum, the teacher, the school, and the overarching goals of the classroom. This article focuses on how to help students decide for themselves whether they should be in a group or not, and gives resources that may be helpful.
Admittedly, I am biased towards allowing group work because it resembles the play that is important to childhood development.
The Beginning of the Year
During the first weeks, I tell students that they will be doing a big project called National History Day, and this project will take most of the year. I inform students about the general characteristics of the project, how it will be different than other projects they completed, and that they can do the project individually or as a group. The three years I did National History Day were consistent with the breakdown of individual and group projects. About 1/3 of my students would compete individually, the other 2/3 formed groups between two to five students. It is worthwhile to note that one of the project categories, the essay, could only be done individually, and about 10% of my students would complete an essay.
Before students decide anything about their project, they explore their passions and interests in history, what skills they want to learn and practice, and a few other details about themselves. If you are interested in those individual discovering activities, check out Introducing A Social Studies Class Week 1.
Click on the photo to learn more about introducing a social studies classroom.
Sailing can be done in a group, or by yourself. No matter what, bring people and equipment that will help you move forward, not sink the ship.
Along with learning about themselves, they would listen to me read Analogy of Working on a Team. In the story about sinking or sailing in a ship, I would mix in some personal classroom stories to highlight why picking partners wisely is beneficial. Also, I told the students that if they really had an idea they wanted to pursue, but no one else wanted to, then it was alright for them to work individually. Overall, I had some surprising students work individually, and then other groups form from students who did not really know one another until they started the project.
Always Keeping The Students Thinking About Groups
I did not just mention groups once, but routinely brought it up. If students were forming groups, then they had to complete forms such as the History Day Self-Questioning Survey. This simple questionnaire asked students to reflect on their choices of group members and how those partners were going to contribute to the project. Additionally, students had to get a signed permission form from their parent(s)/guardian(s) in order to participate in a group; an example of this form can be seen at Parent Signature of group form.
One of the only rules I placed on student groups, beyond the rules already established in National History Day, was they had to choose students who had similar historical interests that they did, or the students had to explain in great detail as to how their seemingly different interests could be combined into one project. This one rule helped create diverse groups that produced original work.
Maintaining Groups Once They Are Formed
The early groundwork that the students and I did was beneficial, but it was necessary to do more. For example, students would often get confused about their roles in a group and the normal tropes of “the student that does nothing” and “the know-it-all” would surface. I created an online spreadsheet that helped keep all of the group work organized. Group and individual projects would check in with me between three to four times a month to show me how they were doing. There were also deadlines students needed to meet and the spreadsheet helped me keep track of them.
Ideas I Wish I Tried
I am now teaching at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a teacher educator and do not directly work with National History Day students. If I were still operating my own classroom, I would have had students post the type of projects, skills, and ideas they want to pursue in a public place inside the school so students from different periods could more easily see what everyone was doing. It was often difficult for students to see what everyone was interested in. Also, I would have continued to recruit other teachers to help with the projects by allowing students to work on the projects in their classrooms.