Why Sometimes Less is More

There’s an ongoing phenomenon in Indonesia’s academic world: that of teachers from all subjects assigning group-works to their classes. Be it mathematics or sociology, physics or anthropology, it is nearly inescapable for a pupil to be trapped with a select few other peoples for one or more assignments. Most of my college-aged peers find no problems with this arrangement, however a few—including myself—are looking forward to a change in the system. With good enough reasons, of course.

Let us firstly admit that not all types of works are collaborative in nature. Sure, a short film would require multiple individuals operating specific pieces of equipment all at the same time. But an essay? A parchment that is written or typed down, a tasked able to be handled by just one individual with a clever enough mind? Such a task does not demand cooperation, rather  the rigor and aptitude of the essayist.

Essay writers do not always necessarily need a helping hand. The gathering of data can be done by oneself should its source not be too hazardous—i.e. a specific group of peoples, not the unpolluted air on top of Everest. Mapping out the structure of the composition similarly needs only one mind, as too many inputs would likely result in a Frankenstein-ish pattern of thought. Just imagine listening to the same argument delivered by multiple peoples with different approaches all trying to send an identical message at the exact same time; that is what it’s like to create an outline with a group. Finally, the part of writing should be left to one author, and one alone.

Each individual has a style of writing unique to themselves. Some prefer to use humor, others utter seriousness and some choose to paint by numbers. There are no rights and wrongs when it comes to the styles we adopt, as long as they remain readable to the audience. But consistency is of utmost importance. Reading a paragraph describing the deathly, personal situations faced by plague-stricken Africans, followed by a set of tables and graphs would destroy the element of immersion. Yet this is what could happen when more than one person is put in charge of composing a written work. Unless these men and/or women are completely in sync, failure is bound to rear itself in the shape of inconsistency and abrupt changes in the narrative. At worst the collaborating writers would end up with different conclusions due to contrasting understandings of the subject matter: a death sentence for whatever was worked on.

What I’ve described above are anecdotes out of my own life. They are the things that occur on multiple levels of academia—instances where two minds are not necessarily better than one. Unfortunately, they are mere tip of the icebergs ahead.

Those of us who have had the luck to go through formal education have known “that guy.” That one person who never contributes anything to the group-project he’s assigned to, nor does he support any of the other contributing members. His inactivity may stem from an inability to process the required information, to keep up with the progress of the group, or just outright laziness. Whatever the reasons, there he is, most of the time receiving a grade he is fully aware he does not deserve. I would love to say that this type of person only exists in classrooms, but as many of us are aware of, he pops up time and time again throughout our lives, each time donning different masks and new excuses. This individual(s) cannot be eliminated if we continue to permit their leeching of organizational works.

Then comes another breed of not-necessarily-leeches, but peoples who disrupt the harmony of a group as badly as the aforementioned does. I like to call them the “know-it-alls,” people who think and act as if their way of doing things is the only effective option. They tend to take charge not by virtue of intellect or creativity—essential elements for the production of a quality good—but by employing social dominance, and shrouding those who might have better ideas with their booming voices. Their charisma is key to them attaining a position of leadership, unchallenged by his quiet yet perhaps brighter peers. I cannot say that this category of peoples are inherently bad for the performance of a group, though the risk of employing them means limiting the ideas offered on the table; as they would be piles of his own.

I am not someone who seeks to be on top of everything. I prefer to work alone, with my own schedule, timetables, et cetera. Freedom is essential for me to perform well. And working in groups does not give me that sense of being able to do whatever I want, whenever I want that is—for myself—undeniably crucial. In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, the writer and former lawyer Susan Cain ellegantly discusses all the issues I’ve presented in greater detail. One of the central themes of her work is: Introverts—people who do not socialize well with others, especially strangers—need conditions tailored for their needs to function well. Unsurprisingly, when these introverted individuals were given cubicles and office spaces designed for privacy, their work rate, efficiency, and mood all rose to considerable levels (for more details, I sincerely recommend reading this book).

I can confidently say that I’m an introvert with how much time I prefer spending alone typing away on this old laptop. Thus Cain’s work resonates quite well with me. It is true that not all types of tasks are suited for sharing, many need to be handled by just one specific individual (essay writing, to go back to a previous example). Otherwise, we hazard the risks of leeches, know-it-alls, and a general sense of not knowing what’s going on with each group member having their own ideas for the project.

To be perfectly blunt, group-work is overrated. It saps the creative and intellectual forces of the quiet kids in the room, whilst glorifying those who might not be bright but just charismatic enough to take center stage. I am by no means jealous of the latter category, though I sincerely sympathize with those belonging to the former. Imagine knowing the solution to the problems at hand only to be blocked away by social pressures, and even if you work up the courage to prop up yours, it would be slapped away by the know-it-all. Meanwhile, the leech dozes off in the corner just waiting for the meeting to end. All of these things need to be stopped.

There are no apparent benefits in forcing students to work with another at all possible times. Certain projects demand a singular mind and no more than two hands. Writing, public speaking, designing, composing all fall into this category. There is no need at all for extra hands, for the writers, speakers, designers, and composers are all quite-used to working long into the night by themselves—a testament I can personally vouch for.

However, there is no denying that certain tasks would benefit from have more than just one pair of hands. It would be impossible to construct the gargantuan constructs we see in our cities had they not demanded thousands of workers working side-by-side. Opera, football, wide-scoped researches, are all in need of whatever human resources are available. Yet again, these types of projects are vastly different in nature from those requiring one mere specialized mind. These require teamwork, camaraderie, and other such wonderful things.

In writing this parchment, I am by no means dismissing the benefits of directing a set of peoples towards accomplishing a certain goal. What I am doing, is asking for the euphoria generated by the completion of wonders done by mutual cooperation to not breach into the confines of solitary works. In essence, there are two categories of projects: the ones needed to be done by one lone person, and those that demand the absolute harmony of multiple individuals. Both are good, having unique advantages of their own. But these benefits do not necessarily apply to the opposing category and, as we’ve seen, may at times prove to be more as hindrances than useful perks.

Hence I humbly ask teachers, educators, even business-leaders, to realize that not everything can be done by the power of teamwork. Yes there are many that would flourish from such a force. Yet there are also the opposites who would suffer from being coerced from being worked on by a group—both for the sakes of the project and the individuals involved.

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