Social Education
February 1998
Volume 62 Number 2

Is Group Decision Making in the Classroom Constructive or Destructive?

Rhonda King and John King

If students are to become active and informed citizens, schools need to emphasize the development of thinking skills, reflective decision making, and collaborative processes. As Richard Paul once asserted:

If you believe that one primary function of education is to prepare students for participation in democracy, you must believe that helping students to refine their ability to judge social, political, and economic questions (and questions to which these subjects relate) as clearmindedly, fairly, and rationally as possible is among the most important and useful functions of education.1

To achieve these purposes, educators themselves need a clear view of the processes students use to think about and discuss issues. These are not self-evident, nor have they been widely investigated. As David Perkins put it, “real thinking on the hoof is one of the rarest beasts to find studied.”2 And ethnographer Michael E. Brenner has pointed out that “despite the fact that one major function of the school system is to teach children a variety of cognitive skills, little attention has been paid to how such skills actually are learned and used in the classroom.”3
Group decision making in the classroom is a process that should develop skills of thinking and collaboration. Information and ideas are exchanged with the objective of making the best decision. To be effective, however, the process of decision making needs to be constructive and not divisive. Students need to learn the skills of listening and understanding as well as the ability to articulate a point of view.
Do decision-making activities in the classroom usually achieve these aims? The study reported here focused on Australian students’ cognitive and social skills in group decision-making activities conducted in the classroom. The study involved a single classroom, and further studies are required before making generalizations about how students of this age typically behave. Its results do, however, offer an understanding of how teaching strategies and learning contexts can affect students. The results also point to problems that face teachers interested in organizing productive classroom discussions.

Participants
Because one of the researchers had already established a rapport with its teacher, a year 6/7 composite class (children ages 11 and 12) was chosen as the subject of this study. Students in the school came from a generally lower socioeconomic community. A large proportion had fathers in the army, and approximately 15 percent were of Australian aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, or Asian ethnicity.
Within the class, four 12-year-olds—two girls and two boys—were selected for close observation, since it would have been difficult to observe the interaction of all students together. These four students had positive attitudes toward the activity and agreed to the videotaping of their group interactions.
Three lessons were videotaped. The objective of the first lesson was to develop class rules. Groups of students brainstormed problems, selected three top-priority rules from their list, and presented these to the class. The class then adopted five class rules from the combined list of suggestions.
In lesson two, students used brainstorming to identify school problems and determine solutions. Groups brainstormed problems, selecting one top-priority problem, then brainstormed solutions, deciding on one or two preferred solutions. Then the entire class selected one or two possible solutions and considered ways to implement them.
The final lesson provided ample opportunity to observe tolerance and rationality in the decision-making process. The group worked together to arrive at a consensus on the most appropriate word to complete a cloze reading comprehension exercise in which a word had been deleted from a passage.

The Teacher’s Role
For his part, the teacher was emphatic in his objective of promoting student tolerance and rationality in class decision making. From our observation, his action in class matched this objective well. He tried to teach the students listening and talking skills, brainstorming techniques, ways of building on others’ ideas, and the ability to reach agreement. He established a nonthreatening climate where students felt comfortable. In an interview with the researchers, he suggested that, no matter what answers students gave to questions, it was important that

... those answers be accepted but at the same time, what I would do is challenge the child to say, “Why did they give that answer? What do other people think of the answer? How could it be developed on from there?”—and then maybe give some of my own ideas about how their answer is, in fact, acceptable because of certain reasons ... For example, by thinking along this line, we might come up with a new answer that might be reasonable.

He thought that group interaction was important because “it enables children to realize they have support in their group . . . that their ideas become accepted . . . to feel comfortable . . . that there are no right and wrong answers.”
The teacher’s directions and responses promoted a constructive context for group discussions. At the beginning of the first lesson, he discussed with the class “ideas to keep in mind during group work.” He suggested that they “encourage each other... nod your head.” They also revised the concept of brainstorming: “Accept all ideas... Accept everything.” These points were written on the blackboard as reminders. At the end of the lesson in which the class was voting on their class rules, he encouraged all students to express their ideas before and after the vote. He emphasized that there should be no urging because all students were entitled to their own opinions. Through his behavior, the teacher modeled a supportive, tolerant response to student thoughts and feelings.

Student Strategies
From observations and interviews, it was evident that students were highly motivated to participate in group decision-making activities in the classroom. Students repeatedly stated that they would like to engage in similar activities again. The students also felt that they had benefited from the discussions. Rachel referred to how she has changed: “I used to just say ‘I give in’... now I’ve learnt to wait for the answer.” She believed that these skills had transferred to situations at home:

When I’m at home, like before I’ve been doing all these lessons and stuff, I used to . . . Mum and Dad would say something and I would go along without . . . even though I’d think in my head . . . well, that’s not right and I don’t argue against them, but after these lessons I’ve learned to stand up and say that’s not right and how about this and give evidence to it.

All of the students saw work-related decision making as a way of reducing real or potential conflict. However, their focus in these situations was on self-assertion and expressing ideas rather than actively listening to the thoughts and feelings of others.

In the future like when you’re at work or some place you might think . . . something like, if you’re a manager or something at K-Mart or something you might say, “Oh, this crisis flared up because people don’t buy . . . because they’re too [expensive]” or something like that . . . you try to give them reasons. To reason, to say why you think your product is better than other products. Like, um, if you’re a manager of a company or something it would help you to get your ideas across to a board or . . . on the market.

However, Chris proposed a situation that suggested a genuinely cooperative enterprise.

I thought it might help you when you’re in the army when you go bush and all that. . . . When you’re out bush, you’ve got three men, you’ve got one that does all the compass work, and the note taker, and the radio man . . . you have to agree on what to do and that.

Students perceived assertiveness to be a necessary skill in our society. However, despite this motivation and enhanced assertiveness, there was little evidence that student strategies promoted decision making as a constructive process involving rationality or tolerance. Video analysis of lesson two indicated that student strategies were primarily destructive, asserting ideas by negating others. There was little evidence to suggest that students were positively listening and building on the ideas of others or negotiating their ideas with others. When asked what she did when people thought differently from her, Mardi said:

What do I do? Well I just search all the way through and I can make up things and try and make it sound realistic and I just argue and argue and argue with them and try and reason it with them. I try and convince them but it is a bit hard.

Mardi’s reply suggests that the purpose of the exercise was to ensure that the student’s idea was accepted, regardless of whether it really was the best idea. There appeared to be no consideration of other ideas. Making up evidence that may “sound realistic” was perceived as acceptable.
While there was little logical development of ideas to support their assertions, students tended to assert their idea through repetition, changing their voice, or body language. On only three occasions did students attempt to provide evidence for their opinions. Students occasionally called on each other to express their opinion, but only on one occasion did a student encourage another to provide a reason for his or her opinion.

Rachel [to Jason]: Well, fight!
Mardi [to Jason]: Well, c’mon, argue with us then.

But even here, the stance was aggressive. So, overall, there was limited evidence to suggest that students support and build on the ideas of others or even present a logical argument for their own idea. In fact, there was ample evidence to show that students were very critical and destructive in their responses, with little acceptance of other ideas. For example, before Mardi could provide a reason to support her assertion that students “playing near toilets” was a top-priority problem, Rachel broke in:

Mardi: It’s a problem ‘cause people might be going to the toilet.
Rachel: Yeah, they should lock the door.
Mardi: They can climb over.
Chris: How would they go to the toilet?
Rachel: They don’t climb over.
Mardi: That’s stupid, I reckon that they can climb over.
Rachel: But, they don’t climb over.
Chris: They do!

Rachel and Chris attempted to destroy Mardi’s idea by asserting theirs through repetition, the “cracked record” strategy.
The language used by the students in the class discussions indicated an argumentative, “clash” attitude, suggesting that decision making was a “fight.” For one idea to win, the others had to lose. There seemed to be little suggestion that a decision could be the result of the group working on an idea together.

Mardi [hand across the table to Jason]: What are you going to do? Are you going to agree with us?
Jason: On what?
Mardi [to Jason]: So are you going to give up? You’re not going to give up, are you?
Jason [shaking head]: No.
Rachel [to Jason]: Well, fight!
Mardi [to Jason]: Well, c’mon, argue with us then.
Jason: It’s sensible.

At a later stage, Mardi asked Chris: “Christian, butt in on it!” Butt suggests a fight. The idea of taking sides rather than working constructively is evident in Jason’s comment to Chris: “Are you on my side?” When an idea was not accepted, the students supporting that idea really felt as though they had lost the fight. Rachel, in response to how she felt when her idea was not accepted said, “You feel a bit sad, like unhappy, because you fought for it, and then you just lost it.”
It did not appear that the ideas adopted had been rationally evaluated and shown to have worthwhile characteristics. Often an idea was adopted, not because it was accepted by all, but because those who had initially disagreed had “given in.” For example, in response to what seemed like a stalemate, Rachel said: “All right, I’ll give up. I’ll go with whoever.”
When the students were interviewed about the class activity, language promoting the “clash system,” or a destructive method of decision making, was evident. Group decision making sounded like a battle. For example, Mardi proclaimed, in response to a question about what she learned from these discussions: “Like you got to stand up behind your word.” Chris, saying what he liked about the activities, said: “Oh, having the discussions. Fighting over it, over the word.” When Rachel was asked how someone could be encouraged back into the discussion: “Tell him that, um . . . fight for your answer . . . don’t let other people just say ‘Oh well, that’s three of us, so it looks like you’re outvoted,’ but you’ve got to say to them . . . ‘Stand up and fight for yourself.’”
These comments from the students suggest that they perceived the decision-making process as some sort of destructive sport and that it was important to be assertive and fight for their idea at other’s expense. At the same time, it was important not to get upset if they lost.

Conclusions and Recommendations
Observations and interviews indicated that students were highly motivated to participate in group decision-making activities in the classroom. They were learning to be more assertive and to develop reasons for their opinions. Most attempts to be more rational and logical when presenting their arguments were, however, thwarted by others’ interruptions.
Student strategies in making decisions in groups were predominantly destructive. Students asserted their own ideas at the expense of others. Although at times they encouraged each other to provide reasons for their assertions, there was little positive listening as they were primarily looking for ways to negate these reasons.
It may well be that, at the age of 12 years, these students had not begun “to experience the powers of reflective and internalized thinking,”4 which Elizabeth Hunter suggests are restricted to formal-operational thinkers. Hunter points out that students must be “committed to become more reflective, more self-aware, and more systematic.”5 Likewise, Vincent R. Ruggiero has noted the importance of developing and reinforcing the dispositions associated with effective thinking—reflection, clarification, and evaluation of values and beliefs.6
In addition to teaching the skills of decision making in their classrooms, teachers may wish to:
1. Place more emphasis on the value of good decision making by considering specific age-related scenarios to emphasize why it is important in different situations to make good decisions.
2. Consider the questions: Will these ideas develop out of a “battlefield”? How can I facilitate constructive decision-making skills in my classroom? How can I ensure that group work is constructive and not divisive?
3. Build in strategies that teach rationality and tolerance, such as effective skills at taking in information and then analyzing and evaluating the content before reacting.


Notes
1. Richard Paul, Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World (Rohnert Park, CA: Sonoma State University, Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique, 1990): 419.
2. David Perkins, “The Hidden Order of Open-Ended Thinking,” Paper presented at the Fifth International Conference of Thinking, Townsville, Australia, July 1992, 5.
3. Michael E. Brenner, “The Practice of Arithmetic in Liberian Schools,” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 16, no. 3 (1985): 177.
4. Elizabeth Hunter, “Focus on Critical Thinking Skills across the Curriculum,” NASSP Bulletin 75, no. 532 (1991): 73.
5. Ibid., 75.
6. Vincent R. Ruggiero, Teaching Thinking Across the Curriculum (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1988).

Rhonda King is Manager of Education Services, Townsville/Berdekin District, Queensland, Australia. John King is a Senior Lecturer in Educational Computing in the School of Education, James Cook University, Townsville, Australia.

Fieldwork Methods in this Study
The researchers collected data over a period of six weeks. The teacher determined, established, and maintained the activities designed to develop decision-making skills. The methods employed to conduct the research included participant observation and videotaping of classroom lessons, collection of materials produced by the focal students, and interviews with the teacher and the four students selected to be videotaped to understand their perceptions of the decision-making activities.
Three 30-minute classroom sessions were videotaped to allow the researchers to observe the behavior of students, and, in particular, to evaluate nonverbal cues when analyzing classroom interaction. The videotapes of the thirty-minute sessions included student-student and student-teacher interaction, although the focus was primarily on student interaction without teacher presence. The participant observer-researcher compared the interaction in the focal group with that in other observed groups to ensure that the interaction videotaped was representative of most classroom interactions.
The researchers reviewed the tape of each lesson before the following lesson to identify key points of interest to examine in the next tape. After the first lesson, the researchers posed the questions: How do groups make decisions? How supportive are they in this process? Do they build on each other’s ideas, or do they negate each other’s ideas in an attempt to have their ideas accepted? After the second lesson and an interview with the teacher, the researchers decided to limit the study’s focus to student tolerance and rationality in decision-making. The third lesson gave them ample opportunity to study the subject.

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.