Challenge Based Learning often includes working in a group* to research a Challenge, and develop, implement and evaluate solutions. When forming groups for Challenges there are benefits and detriments to both self-selected and externally created groups. An interesting perspective on the value of diversity in groups emerges from the research of Phillips, Liljenquist and Neale (2010). This research found that heterogeneous groups performed better than homogenous groups when solving problems. In particular the addition of an “outsider” to established groups not only brings about new information but also changes the flow of the group. The “outsider” forces the original group members to attend more closely to information and consider their alliances with other members. The result is new ideas and opinions that would have never been considered if the group had remained homogenous.

Homogenous groups are primarily concerned about relationships and often avoid difficult discussions. This can stifle opportunities for conflict and struggle that often leads to new ideas and innovation. Interestingly the research showed that homogenous groups are more confident in their decisions even though their conclusions were more often incorrect. For the heterogeneous groups the results flipped with better conclusions and less confidence.

The “outsider” added to homogenous groups does not need to be an individual. The musician Brian Eno developed a set of cards (Oblique Strategies) that could be randomly selected when bands or artists hit blocks or were struggling with their creativity. The cards made the artists stop and try something completely different, in effect “shaking things up” in a similar way as adding a new, diverse thinker to the group.

Explore the 2015 TedTalk by Tim Harford: How frustration can make us more creative for more on these ideas.

* Note: This does not mean that challenges always need to be addressed as a group. The ability to work independently and in a group is critical for success beyond the four walls of the classroom. In reality, most work and personal environments flow between independent and group work. Giving students opportunities and strategies for both types of work is critical.

Mark Nichols, July 2016