An Alternative Perspective on Group Dynamics

In my last post I discussed the hazards of group work and group think. Ironically, in an experience I had last week, I really wished for more group work. Not group think, but group commitment and group responsibility.

On Monday I returned home after 9 nights away and 8 days walking the West Highland Way.

west highland map

This 96 mile walk takes you through some of Scotland’s most spectacular scenery, the culmination being a view of Ben Nevis on the final day – and ‘No’, despite encouragement from friends I did not stay an extra day to climb it. 96 miles was sufficient achievement for me.

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The path along the West Highland Way was for the most part rough under foot. Not easy walking. We had a few steep climbs and descents

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and some lashing rain

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But for me, despite the fact that I am not the world’s strongest walker, the walking was not the most difficult aspect of this experience. The most difficult aspect, which had me ‘biting my tongue’ on most days was the group dynamics. If ever there was a situation for a group to work together, this was it, but it did not happen.

I think the age range in our group of 12 walkers was somewhere between 55 and 76. The youngest were not necessarily the strongest, but the oldest was definitely the weakest. In his own words, he wanted one final challenge in his life and realised that he had probably bitten off more than he could chew. He was slower than the rest of the group and very much slower than some.

This brought out the worst possible behaviour in some members of the group, who resented being slowed down, particularly if it was lashing with rain, and declared that they simply could not wait because this meant that they would get cold. So they strode on ahead at the rate of knots with not a care for the slower members of the group.

There were also many other complaints from the same members of the group. The accommodation was not good enough, the beds creaked and were not comfortable enough, the packed lunch sandwiches were not what they wanted, the bread was white instead of brown, there were apples instead of bananas, the food at dinner was either served too fast or too slow, the leader was basically too nice, flexible and accommodating and so it went on.

What did I learn from this? I learned that diversity in groups is essential. It makes for a very interesting and rich learning experience, but that ultimately there are situations in which, for survival, groups must pull together. Individuals must subjugate their own desires and needs and compromise for the benefit of the group and for the benefit of all group members. In our group we had an elderly man who was having a last bash at a long distance walking challenge. In my mind a well functioning group would have found ways to support this, without complaining, rejection and intolerance. The diversity of the group was still important. Each person was unique, but how could it ever be right to not support the weakest member of the group?

I don’t think this equates to group think.

I learned a lot on this walk – principally that tolerance, flexibility, caring and humour remain important values for me. There were some lovely people in our walking group who shared these values, but also some who didn’t seem to understand that in a situation such as walking the West Highland Way, commitment to the group was important.

And finally to prove that I did it 🙂

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For more photos and information about walking the West Highland Way here is a set of photos

5 thoughts on “An Alternative Perspective on Group Dynamics

  1. keith.hamon May 16, 2014 / 3:39 pm

    Thanks for this wonderful story, Jenny. For me, it illustrates that open learning, such as happens in some cMOOCs and some walks along the West Highland Way, are always group affairs, always rhizomatic. Sometimes people emphasize the individualistic, even selfish, approach to open, rhizomatic learning, but rhizomatic learning is always a communal endeavor. No community, no rhizome. Cultivation of community is an overlooked aspect, I think, of our thinking about open learning. We need community in order to learn. I just don’t think learning happens without community, even when I’m snug and alone in my own sleeping bag—even then, I am alone within the context of some community.

    One of the biggest problems I have with the traditional classroom is that it is structured to work against the emergence of community. Students must relate singly to the teacher. If they form a community, then they might gain too much group power for the teacher to overcome, and loss of power is perhaps the traditional teacher’s greatest fear.

  2. Carmen Tschofen May 16, 2014 / 7:18 pm

    Hi Jenny,

    I find your account of your experience interesting in so many ways, and as you note, it raises all sorts of questions about groups and community and responsibility. This is an area that outdoor education in particular addresses as an area of academic study http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outdoor_education and in practice http://www.outwardbound.org/about-outward-bound/philosophy/ … in ways that seem to have all sorts of connections to other non-standard learning environments:-)

    As a past coordinator of outdoor endeavors, I am all too familiar with the tension you describe here, while at the same time it seems to me there are so many points where this journey could have taken other (figurative, or even literal?) paths. For me it especially raises questions about how the expectations of group members were shaped and clarified, both as individual participants bringing beliefs and assumptions, and through the coordinating facility or leader via communication before the trip. Would there have been discussion not only about carefully laid plans (“this is what and how we will work this trip”) but also about the prospect of emergence (“there are some things we can’t completely predict and will be adjusted along the way”)?

    However, there is also a phenomenon where, in spite of everyone’s best intentions and efforts, people hear what they want to hear, or hear things and simply don’t understand their significance, as they have no personal context for grasping the information. In a very resonant parallel, my son has been leading regular day and overnight mountain hiking trips where, in spite of well-documented information provided to each participant, hikers have appeared in open-toed sandals, and even flowing dresses that caught on every branch and rock. These things create dicey situations both for individuals and for the group. We’ve discussed how it would be interesting to understand how these things happen. (I think he’s actually getting ready to conduct a survey:-)) Did people not read or hear the information provided? Did they not have the requested gear, and/or not enough information to identify what features would be important in acceptable alternatives? Are they so removed from or inexperienced in the concept of wilderness that they honestly did not understand how conditions there differ from city streets?

    It turns out that pacing is also an issue, even among young people:-) In addition to inadequate gear slowing the pace, it is also the case that the information about distances to be hiked and time planned for doing so has no meaning for people who have no physical, “on the ground” experience with wooded or rocky or ascending or descending paths, meaning that their own estimates of their abilities are, at best, guesses. All of this creates conditions ripe for a variety of tensions and even dangers, including hypothermia (both due to clothing choices and through waiting for others in cold conditions), and it’s all enough to potentially drive a group “round the bend… to conflict and dysfunction.

    There is that other level though– the one of emergence, where once you’re in it, you cope, improvise, and adjust. This adjustment seems also to be an area where individuals in groups of any kind have difficulty, and is an area of very sensitive issues. For example, in your situation, why was there such apparent reluctance to rally to at least share the support needs, especially considering the length and extent of the trip? Was it possible that your slow walker himself could have chosen an alternative process in recognition of the group functioning, perhaps in coordination with your group’s presumably knowledgeable leadership or others? Was there an option for honest, if difficult conversation to help address the tensions and create adaptations, or did “politeness” and backroom mutterings shape the group communication?

    It all makes me wonder if this trip was difficult in two ways: in part because there were so many emerging needs and situations for which people were psychologically and physically unprepared… and in part because it was so structured (a single path within given time constraints) that it didn’t have the flexibility to accommodate such a wide range of needs and abilities and expectations…

    So… all of this is to say: it seems like we can substitute “MOOC” or any other environment where structure and emergence are crossing paths, and we keep winding up with new angles… on some pretty familiar questions and situations.

    Congrats on the trek, lashing rain and all!

  3. jennymackness May 17, 2014 / 6:17 pm

    Keith – thanks so much for your visit and comments, which I have been thinking about. I don’t think I equate ‘group’ with ‘community’. In my understanding they have different purposes, although there is some overlap (I feel another blog post coming on!).

    I agree that social learning does not necessarily mean being a member of a group or a community – but it does mean being connected – even if this connection is to the author’s ideas in a book.

    The notion of ‘power’ in relation to groups and community is a minefield – and, as I think Carmen has intimated in her comment – is related to leadership. But there are many leadership styles. I am still thinking this through. As I said – I feel another post coming on.

    My West Highland Way walk has given me a lot to think about, and as so often happens, it relates to my thinking about how people learn in different environments.

  4. jennymackness May 17, 2014 / 6:37 pm

    Carmen – it’s wonderful to get a comment from you. You always give me so much to think about and, as ever, so much of what you have written resonates with my own experience and thinking. I agree that there were deficiencies (hope that isn’t too strong a word), in the way in which my walking group for the West Highland Way was planned. I won’t write more here as I would like to write another post about this.

    I can completely relate to your son’s experience – and pretty much everything you describe could be recognised in our walking group (apart from the clothing – we mostly had appropriate clothing – although I have seen examples of what you describe). On reflection I should not have been surprised, because I have had the experience before – but more than 40 year ago.

    When I was 18, my father decided that I needed a bit of a character building experience and sent me on an Outward Bound course. This was my first introduction to the complexities of group dynamics. There were girls on this course who were from inner city factories who had practically never seen a blade of grass, never mind be dumped in the Welsh mountains to fend for ourselves as a group. We struggled to get on with each other as we got lost in the mountains through lack of an ability to agree on which direction to walk and where to pitch camp! But ultimately we did survive and I expect everyone else learned as much as I did.

    Following this, I returned to the Welsh Mountains in my early twenties to be an instructor for the same Girls Outward Bound Course in Wales – as a rock climbing instructor. I am proud of this, because I helped some girls to face and overcome their fears and I learned a lot about the vulnerability that some experience. I should stress that I am no longer a rock climber and haven’t been for many a year – but that for a brief spell I was quite good at it 🙂

    I think you have hit the nail on the head with this comment:

    >>> it all makes me wonder if this trip was difficult in two ways: in part because there were so many emerging needs and situations for which people were psychologically and physically unprepared… and in part because it was so structured (a single path within given time constraints) that it didn’t have the flexibility to accommodate such a wide range of needs and abilities and expectations…>>>

    … but there was also the element of leadership, which I am still reflecting on and hope to write another post about – particularly since MOOCs – which is my main research interest – seem to promote different styles of leadership/teaching intervention.

    Thanks so much Carmen. I will reflect and be back 🙂

  5. jennymackness May 17, 2014 / 6:47 pm

    I want to thank Stephen Downes for making this comment about this post on his OL Daily website: http://www.downes.ca/archive/14/05_16_news_OLDaily.htm

    >>>In this post Jenny Mackness offers a rethink on the need for group formation. “How could it ever be right to not support the weakest member of the group? … There were some lovely people in our walking group who shared these values, but also some who didn’t seem to understand that in a situation such as walking the West Highland Way, commitment to the group was important.” It’s an interesting challenge. I’m sure that when people signed up for the walk, they weren’t signing up for the task of helping an older person walk 96 kilometres. Yet the group dynamics seems to impose this responsibility on them, to the point where they are criticized for not ‘sharing’ these values. On the other hand, how is it right to leave an older person behind on a Highlands hike? I think that depending on group formation to establish a basis for morality is a mistake. But that morality itself is not a mistake.>>>>

    This post was quite a challenge to my thinking. I had not thought before that one person’s notion of morality could be imposed on someone else, or that an expectation of a ‘shared’ morality might be naive. These are challenging ideas which I need to think through further.

    I pointed a friend to Stephen Downes’ comment – and his response was

    >>>An interesting dilemma – generalisable morality as something absolute as in you should always look out for the poor, underprivileged, weaker members of the group as opposed to the specific case of morality in the sense that the weakest were inflicted on us – so why do we have to take on the burden of looking after them? Maybe it’s not either/or but a happy medium is possible. You could argue that it was immoral for the group as a whole not to understand this. The ‘moral’ outcome could have been that the group as a whole took on the burden of looking after the weaker member as a group activity. This didn’t happen either because the leader didn’t understand his role or because as a self-organising group, the moral outcome was not perceived as important for some reason?>>>

    Lots to think about in all these comments – so thanks again to all.

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