Group Work and Healthy Solitude

Learning Permaculture Ethics (2013-2014, Sunshine Coast, BC)

I need to be alone. I need to ponder my shame and my despair in seclusion; I need the sunshine and the paving stones of the streets without companions, without conversation, face to face with myself, with only the music of my heart for company.” ~ Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.” ~ Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

This week at our PIDP 3250 course we watched Susan Cain’s Ted talk called “The Power of Introverts” and discussed the ups and downs of group work at the forums.

I hate labels and I think we as a society are full of them: nobody is fully an introvert or an extrovert all the time and throughout their lives, as not all those who are quiet in groups and classes have something interesting to say and not all the “out spoken” and Hermione Granger ones are bossy and empty of great ideas…

Having said that, I have to confess that I rarely enjoyed group work: I tend to get stuck, void of good ideas and all the chatting around makes me anxious and unable to concentrate or learn. With group work, many things stay unsaid and unshared…other times, a few do all the hard work while some take a free ride…

Mrs Cain says something very interesting about our society: we have made the “salesman” personality a hero, a goal for all those who want to “succeed” in life. We celebrate the “extroverts” and force children (and adults!) to work in teams even for things that necessitate deep concentration and reflection that can only be accomplished through healthy solitude and by taking time. We see parties and “socialization” with good eyes and punish the quiet and solitary soul who may prefer reading and walking by themselves.

Group work has become a “must” in schools, colleges and even workplaces…those who do well in interviews get the job (not necessarily those who will be best workers!) and networking has become the main tool to gain attention: from jobs to scholarships to customers and partners. If you happen to be shy, “introvert” or not so “socially skilled” you better win the lottery or may find yourself forever marginalized and stigmatized as weirdo, nerdy or loner (that has even become a bad word!)

Social skills, also called soft skills, are becoming a barrier for many: there seems to be an “ideal” of what every person should be: you better fit in, and you better learn how to work in groups!

Many have started to wonder if all this hype is worth and whether we, as teachers, social workers, counsellors and so on should encourage or even force group work and “social skills” into people.

As a permaculturist, I know I wouldn’t. (Where is “People-Care” ethic otherwise?)…however, there is a flipside to this: people need to learn to work together as part of a community: the future is impossible (with all the challenges we already have and those we can count on coming) if we can’t work with others: the era of the loner, disconnected from the grid and living by herself is very romantic but also quite unrealistic and somewhat selfish…

As it turns out, there are both pros and cons in assigning group work. Group work is also very varied: there is peer- work (two parents only) and team work (more than two); there are groups that work together “in class” for just one activity, and groups who work for weeks on an assignment or project…there are even group-tests, where students can turn to each other for support and negotiate the answers…groups can be assigned, randomly selected or chosen by the students, and while some activities and learning outcomes may work better with groups, some are definitely an individual task.

In my everyday work, I manage four clearly differentiated areas:

  • I work as a career/employment counsellor (where I emphasize the “right livelihood” as described by Buddhism: work should be fulfilling, paying the bills and contributing to society and the environment by not only adding goodness, but also avoid causing harm to others)
  • I teach emergency preparedness and First Aid (with an emphasis on prevention and mitigation and looking at the causes as well as potential consequences)
  • I teach Permaculture (until now, this has been focused on only introductory workshops and some very specific areas such as food sovereignty and design for inner transition)
  • I teach a variety of workshops for the Red Cross, including protocols for program response and delivery, procedures, etc

Some of these areas wouldn’t benefit from group work: those are the areas where deep introspection and thinking need to happen: action plans and goals are very personalized and individuals need space and time to figure out how everything will work for them. There are also many concepts from Permaculture that require individual research, understanding and application before individuals can come together as a group and negotiate their understandings and decisions…there are, however, other areas where group work may be highly beneficial and even required: when high stakes are in play and decisions will affect entire households or communities, groups may need to work together by analyzing cases, discussing potential risks and vulnerabilities, influences, impacts and outcomes and this applies to almost all the areas I teach.

As an introvert myself, I used to be highly competitive in class but also shy: I would work very hard at assignments and hand them out ahead of time and I was somewhat upset when forced to work in groups.

With time, and after becoming aware of where we are at as a species, I learned to appreciate group work, even when it is not well designed: thanks to group work, I have worked with people I wouldn’t “naturally” choose to work with, either due to shyness of approaching them or because I perceived them as too different (for example, since I started studying sustainable horticulture at KPU, I had worked in small groups with 18-year olds, and I have been happily surprised at how well we can work together!)…groups also “force” you to get out of your comfort zone, negotiate how you would work together, roles, responsibilities, deadlines and workload.

However, my current performance in groups (and the outcomes I get from them) came after many years of challenging myself to learn and stretch beyond my “comfort zone”…also as a teacher and counsellor, I have tried different alternatives to group work, always following my belief that challenging people doesn’t need to clash with respecting their needs and uniqueness.

In summary, I like Mrs Cain’s idea that group work may need to happen after people have had the chance to individually process and produce ideas, solutions and learning: when they are string enough that their individual findings can come together and the dangers of “groupthink” can be minimized.

Her last three suggestions were:

  1. Stop the madness for constant group work
  2. Go to the wilderness. Be like Buddha, have your own revelations
  3. Take a good look at what’s inside your own suitcase and why you put it there
My Permaculture group in Rchmond "hill" BC, Jan 2014
My Permaculture group in Rchmond “hill” BC, Jan 2014

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, There is a rapture on the lonely shore, There is society, where none intrudes, By the deep sea, and music in its roar: I love not man the less, but Nature more” ~ George Gordon Byron

“Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson




References and resources:

Benefits of group work:

Group testing:

Collaborative testing:

How to: assessing group work:

How to: implementing group work:

The pros and cons of group work:

Disadvantages of group work:

Susan Cain’s transcript can be found here:

Ted talk: where good ideas come from: by Steven Johnson

One Comment on “Group Work and Healthy Solitude

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