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.


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


and some lashing rain


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 🙂



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

The Hazards of Groups and Group Work

Last week I came across this fun video, which caused me to reflect once again on the potential problems of groups and group work, both on and offline.

For me it’s interesting that the intention of this video is to promote group work and group behaviours in a fun and humorous way, but it also, for me, suggests at least three problems with group work.

First I noted that all members of the group look very much alike, almost like clones of each other. Diversity is in short supply.

Then group members have a tendency to all act in unison and to be defensive. There is the assumption, by group members, that if you are not in the group, then you are either in danger of getting lost (a somewhat patronizing assumption) or subject to the malevolence of a predator. In the light of this assumption, a common action of groups is to close ranks.  All this of course, leads very easily to group think, which in turn constrains autonomy.

It’s not that there isn’t a place for groups and group work – simply that groups need to be very self-aware of these common behaviours, pros and cons.

I often return to Stephen Downes’ post on Groups vs Networks: The Class Struggle Continues and this diagram that he drew.

Screen Shot 2014-04-28 at 11.26.20

In the last year or so, I have seen more and more open online courses introduce group work or collaborative projects, or promote learning in spaces that encourage group formation, which is a departure from the initial intention of massive open online courses to promote networking.

Is it time to remind ourselves of the potential hazards of groups and group work and consider carefully what is to be gained and what is to be lost by becoming a member of a group or embarking on group work, or by asking our students to engage in group work?