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A team is a group, but a group is not necessarily a team

Understanding the difference between "groups" and "teams" suggests strategies for enhancing student performance in collaborative environments
Understanding the differences between "groups" and "teams" can suggest strategies for building effective learning teams

Although academic and leadership literature tends to use “team” and “group” synonymously to describe a group of two or more interacting people, proponents of work teams and learning teams generally recognize important differences between groups and teams that can influence how leaders design, implement, and interact with teams. Distinguishing between a team and a group can help teachers to understand the proper leadership for the context.

Behavioral scientists generally define a group as two or more people who interact with and influence one another (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2005; Jex, 2002; Kreitner & Kinicki, 2008). Social psychologists see humans as social beings (Fiske, 2010) or social animals (Aronson, 2008) who join groups to satisfy shared needs for survival (Kenrick, Neuberg, & Cialdini, 2007), relatedness (Calvin, 1996), and growth (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1961; Maslow, 1987). From a managerial perspective, Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith (1993) described the difference between groups and teams by performance, saying, “A group’s performance is a function of what its members do as individuals. A team’s performance includes both individual results and… ‘collective work-products’”(p. 111). From an academic perspective, L. Dee Fink (Fink, 2004) sees a team as an “intense use of small groups” in which members share goals, commitment, and skills to complete complex tasks and to perform beyond the capacity of individuals working alone.

In other words, a team is a group of individuals, but a group of individuals is not necessarily a team. A team’s members have common commitments and goals, clearly defined roles and responsibilities, interdependent relationships among its members, complementary skills, mutual accountability, and shared identity. In addition, a team has the potential to accomplish more together than they can as individuals.

In a traditional classroom, teachers use various casual and frequent use of group techniques to gain the benefits of social interaction, but those techniques do not necessarily result in team strategies. Fink (2004) calls team-based learning an “intense use of small groups” (2004, p. 7) through which the teacher restructures the entire course around learning teams of members who commit to achieving personal goals by working with others to accomplish common goals. Similar to how a coach of a sports team succeeds by organizing, developing, and coordinating the skills and motivations of individuals to win games, the teacher who implements team-based learning strategy takes an active role in developing and adapting with learning teams to enhance learning and development at the individual, team, and classroom level (University of Phoenix, 2009).

Fink (2004) asserts that research and practice shows that the learning team approach can “help individual members of the team better understand the material, and the team becomes capable of solving very challenging and complex problems that are well beyond the capability of the best student in the class working alone.” Fink sees other group approaches as techniques that teachers can plug into an existing framework while saying that team-based learning is a “strategy” that requires teachers to restructure the course around teams as “social units that (are) quite distinct from groups” (p. 9).

In short, collaborative learning, cooperative learning, and team-based learning all fall under the general category of “small group learning”, meaning organizing students into small groups to improve student development (Fink, 2004). However, each term represents different perspectives, applies different techniques, requires different skills, and involves different levels of engagement by teacher and students. I will expand on these definitions in the section titled “Spectrum of group learning methods”.


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