Guides for Teaching and Learning in Archaeology

Number 3

Thomas A Dowson

Teamwork and Archaeology: A Guide to Developing Teambuilding Skills in Archaeology Students

An archaeology degree, it is often said, provides excellent opportunities for students to learn how to work as part of a team. Fieldwork is a prime example - it is not an activity that can readily be undertaken alone. For most undergraduate students, taking part in an excavation is a compulsory part of their training. As a part of the excavation team these students are said to learn essential teamwork skills. Also, students are increasingly given various forms of assignments (mostly seminar presentations, poster presentations, museum displays for example) that they are asked to complete as a group. Archaeology in a variety of ways then is providing those much needed teambuilding skills employers are looking for in their employees. Interestingly, however, this is not how students see it; they dislike working as part of a group. It is wrong to assume that simply allocating students to a group, and giving them an assignment to complete as a group, will result in them working effectively or even learning anything about working as a functional team. While employers and professional bodies value and rank very highly the ability to work in a team, it is widely felt that of today’s graduates poor logistics and personality clashes often dominate the working environment. One of the root causes of this problem is that students have never been taught how to work as part of a team. More often than not, they are suddenly asked to perform as a team where it counts for marks without having received instruction on how to do so. It is assumed that team work is something they will learn intuitively as they go through the process of completing a joint task. Consequently, there is often a clash of one sort or another. This results in a negative experience for the students; they complain about the activity and the marking of the assignment, and they never want to do group work again. Not surprisingly the students’ reactions result in a negative experience for the lecturer as well - they complain that using group work in Higher Education is fraught with difficulties and best left to someone else. While I agree with those that argue Higher Education should not be primarily about the teaching of transferable skills, these can be a part of our teaching, learning and assessment methods without compromising the character of an undergraduate degree programme. Students can and do enhance their learning by working together in small groups. And to facilitate this, there are some things lecturers can do. In this guide I outline one way of going about this.

Common Problems with Group Work • • • Students do not like working in groups work together

Students complain that the group can not Students complain that a single ‘group’ mark for an assignment is not fair because not other everyone in the group works as hard as each

Class, ethnicity, gender and sexuality affect the way in which students work together

Example Set of Ground Rules for the Group • • • • • • • • Take responsibility for your own thoughts, actions and reactions Speak for yourself Be honest

Keep an open mind understand these ideas

Listen to everyone’s point of view - and try to Be constructive and supportive with other Maintain confidentiality within the group When it comes to safety (e.g. fieldwork) whoever is in charge has final word


Briefing Students on Group Work
Lecturers often feel that they have too little time to cover their topic as it is without the added pressure of having to teach students how to work as a team. While I have some sympathy for this view, it is one that is often rooted in an approach to teaching and learning in which students are passive. In such an approach of course the lecturer is not going to be able to ‘cover everything’ in a limited series of lectures. If, however, we accept that students should play an active role in their learning, it is no longer the lecturer’s responsibility to cover everything. Also, it is perhaps unfair to expect each student to trawl through an entire field of study in archaeology independently in the limited number of hours they have to study that topic/course. This is where getting students to enhance their learning by working in small groups can be very effective. Working as a group students are able to retrieve more information than they could alone, and by analysing this information as a group each student is exposed to a range of points of view, differing beliefs and values, and different approaches to dealing with issues and questions raised. But the fundamental key to making this method of learning successful is providing students with the necessary skills to work as a small group. Not doing so results in students learning less than they would have done in a passive, lecture setting. And it is not surprising those students who have had negative experiences of working in small groups prefer traditional lectures and essays to group work. Briefing students on group work need not be an onerous undertaking for each module of a degree programme. Where the briefing of students on group work has been shown to be particularly effective is where such instruction is incorporated into induction programmes for first year students. But if this is not possible, a lot can be achieved in a single lecture. The critical aspect of preparing students for group work is to get them to begin thinking about behaviours, actions and reactions, and how these effect peoples’ performance. In an induction programme there will be time to explore in detail these group processes and behaviours, by repeatedly carrying out a variety of exercises, stopping after each and reflecting on the activity and planning for the next activity. Where time is short, one or two quick exercises are all that is needed to get students thinking about group processes. I have found the following two exercises useful ones to begin with.

Asking students to participate in group work without fully briefing them is a recipe for disaster. Sally Brown, 1998

Blindfold Square
A group of five people are asked to stand in front of you. Each member is blindfolded. When you are satisfied they can not see, place a rope (10-15 meters) in front of them and read them the following brief: In front of you is a rope. You have 20 minutes to form the rope into a perfect square with each member of your group holding the rope and spaced equally around the perimeter. Your task starts now... There are many ways in which this can be achieved - some simple and some more complicated. But remember at this stage, you are introducing the students to thinking about group processes. I specifically choose five very different people: e.g. dominant, shy, etc. I get this one group to perform the task in front of the rest of the class. While the task is being carried the rest of the class observes. I find it useful to write down what the group members actually say during the task. When the 20 minutes is up and the task complete (or not), I initiate a discussion about the way in which the group worked together by first agreeing with the class a set of ground rules. Having agreed the ground rules, the task is to get both participants and observers to be open, honest and frank on the personal dynamics of the group while attempting to carry out the task. In being honest and open, it is essential that the group (and the observers) deal with what might be considered negative dynamics as well as positive ones. I think the following questions are useful in guiding discussions: • • • • What are your reactions to the exercise (feelings, behaviours, thoughts)? What do you feel you did well? What do you feel could be improved? What do you think you need to do differently?

What is always obvious in this task is how ‘working in the dark’ highlights and exacerbates poor communication skills and bad planning. More often than not members of the group (usually the more dominant ones) issue orders for one way of doing the task; there is little or no discussion about how effective this method might be, or even if there are other ways of doing it. There is rarely discussion about how the instructions will be carried out, or if everyone understands or even agrees. That person often takes it for granted that everyone knows what he/she is thinking. In some instances individuals issue competing or contradictory instructions. At this early stage the group is talking, later shouting in many cases, at one another, as well as over one another, usually not stopping to find out whether what has been said is understood or agreed. This is made worse because they cannot see, and they are hell-bent on getting the task completed successfully. Because they cannot see each other, there is no way of seeing how their fellow team mates are reacting to their instructions. The more dominant people tend to talk to each other, shy people tend to be left out and rarely come forward themselves - their being blindfolded exacerbating the experiences they have everyday. It is important, at this stage, to end by discussing how people will behave or do things differently in a future task.

Drawing a Map
Having discussed the Blindfold Square I then divide the whole class into small groups for the next task - drawing a map. This is the brief: You have XX minutes to produce your own, original map of _____. At the end of this time, the map should be ready for public display. You may only use the equipment given to you by the lecturer. No further information is available from the lecturer. The area to be drawn depends on where you are, but can be the classroom, the floor on which the classroom is located, the building, etc., and the number of minutes depends on this area. Give


the groups equipment that is both relevant to the task, e.g. paper, a ruler, pen, pencil, coloured crayons, but also equipment that is not relevant - I add string, paper clips, glue, whatever. After the first exercise the groups really do try and listen to each other, they watch their behaviour and bend over backwards to bring everyone in. What they tend not to do is analyse the task and the resources available to question what is required of them. One or two persons’ notions of what a map is will prevail - drawing on preconceived ideas about an original map and public display. That person will say they need to produce a scale diagram and will attempt to make use of all the equipment provided. And everyone will fall into line. There is little or no questioning of ‘established orders’ or received wisdom. More often than not, the idea that producing a simple freehand sketch would meet the task’s brief will not even be discussed. The group will probably run out of time because they are too busy dividing up their time measuring the area (do not give them too much time). Once the task is completed (or not as is usually the case) groups need to reflect on how they analysed the requirements of the task itself as well as their personal dynamics. Did they discuss critically what was required, what they would need to use to achieve this? Or, did they rush headlong into attempting to achieve one person’s vision of the task, albeit perhaps making sure everyone feels involved? That involvement is usually limited to everyone agreeing, uncritically, with what needs to be achieved.

Learning from Group work
These two exercises provide a good starting point for students to begin thinking about the way groups of people work together as teams - the group processes and behaviours. It is not essential that students achieve the tasks successfully. In fact, it is better that they do not, so use the time constraints to ensure they do not achieve the task. If I think the group is about to figure the blindfold square exercise out, I say ‘time up’. If they successfully complete the exercise it is very difficult to get them to think about group dynamics without them feeling as if all was well. When you point something out to the group, an aspect of how some members were interacting with one another, some often respond by suggesting it does not matter because they achieved the task. It is then essential to find out if everyone feels the same. People can be successful with a common task, but not successful at all as far as positive group dynamics are concerned. In other words, they are successful by default, not by design. Different people have different conceptions about what it means to be successful, particularly in terms of achieving common tasks. It is therefore very important to get people thinking about these issues in terms of the four questions listed above. A useful tool for learning from this reflection is Kolb’s Learning Cycle. The learning cycle identifies four stages of learning: 1 2 3 4 having an experience reviewing the experience concluding from the experience planning for following experiences As planning for further experiences leads to new experiences, a person’s learning is a constant cycle of experiencing, processing, generalising and applying. Working in a group involves carrying out this reflection both independently and as a group. In the context of an undergraduate education a lecturer can formalise this reflection in the form of a journal or a diary.

Kolb’s Learning Cycle & The Four Stages Of Learning


Marking Group work
One of the most common reasons why (some) students do not like group work has to do with marking of the groups assignment. If you are going to get students to carry out an assignment as a group it really does follow that each member of the group gets the same mark - otherwise it defeats the purpose of the exercise. This upsets some students, usually those students who are competitive and who are aiming for high marks. These students worry about other students’ poor performance lowering their own grades. This is usually more of a problem when members of the groups are selected at random by the lecturer - a self-identified better student could end up in a group with a person he or she identifies a ‘poor achiever’. But if students are given the option of choosing their own groups they either choose their friends and/or other students who they also perceive as ‘high achievers’ - and so defeating the purpose of learning to work with people they might not like to or people they have not interacted with before (people from different cultural backgrounds, genders, ages, etc.). In a sense this is a real problem, it is not just a matter of pushy students trying to get the best marks the easiest way possible. It could be argued that good students’ grades should not be penalised as a result of students who do not (or cannot) cooperate (and we all know these exist). One solution to this ‘problem’ is not to make the group assignment the only assignment - but to include individual, reflective essays/journals where students reflect on the various aspects of their learning - both content and process. In these types of assignments students reflect on how the group worked together, what went well, what went wrong, how could they have behaved differently, what would they do differently in the future? In this way students are being encouraged to take active responsibility for their own learning both in terms of what they learn and how they go about it.

Group Work Can Work
I subscribe, unapologetically, to the view that ‘higher’ in Higher Education is concerned with ‘critique’ - enabling students to develop their ability to make moral and ethical judgements. The primary goal of Higher Education should not be about the teaching of so-called ‘transferable skills’. But, in the context of archaeology as a university discipline, if we cannot get students to reflect on their learning, I very much doubt we can expect them to think critically about the relationship between the past and the present, the consumption of the past in the present, and how the past may be marshalled to challenge social order in the present. So the way in which transferable skills are employed in the HE curricula is of immense importance. I should like to conclude this Guide by briefly outlining how I believe using group work in undergraduate archaeology degrees can get people to learn more than I could cover in the prescribed number of lectures. Through getting students to think critically about their learning together they are also enabled to think critically about what it is they are learning in an active manner. I taught a third year course entitled The Art of Prehistoric Europe. Rather than dividing the various topics this would entail into the allotted 24 lectures, I decided to get groups of students (4 or 5 students in each) to research 10 topics (these included, for example, the origins and evolution of art, art and social complexity, the physical and social production of art). They were required to present a two hour seminar on the topic, write it up in the form of an essay, and to produce a reflective journal about their experiences. Two hours at the start was devoted to briefing them about the course (the expectations) and group work, and a final two hours was used to review the course. At the start, before saying anything else, I asked each student to write down three answers to the following question: why study the art of prehistoric Europe? Without referring to this again, I made the same request at the start of the final review session. The accompanying graph shows the responses for one year of this exercise.


This was an informal exercise, initially for my own curiosity. But I believe it does allow for a significant observation. At the start of the course there was a noticeable view that studying the art of prehistoric Europe was first and foremost something that would be interesting and less boring than other courses on offer, although there does seem to be some intellectual merit to the course. The responses at the end of the course are qualitatively different. The subject was still an interesting one, but the overall interest in the course now had to do with epistemological issues and the relationship of the past to the present in terms of understanding prehistoric art vis-à-vis contemporary art. And this difference was something they achieved themselves. I believe quite strongly that it was forcing students to reflect on their learning throughout that course that also made them more reflective about the archaeology they were learning in the libraries and the seminar room. As a group, listening to different points of view, witnessing different approaches to similar questions and debates, these students started to make critical judgements not just about the interpretation of prehistoric art, but about the way in which prehistoric art is constructed in the present. Taking this approach out of the library and the classroom as it were, I have also used group work exercises when introducing students to rock art fieldwork. I have noticed similar positive changes in the way in which students relate to each other and what they are researching.

Responses to “Why Study the Art of Prehistoric Europe?”, Before And After The Course Number of Responses Type of Response Responses: 1 2 studying prehistoric art develops an understanding of the past I thought it would be an interesting course 9 gives us information about how people in the 10 a good course to take 11 preservation of art past represented themselves 3 develops a sense of academic freedom 5 I like art 4 the course seemed like a less boring option 6 relates to contemporary attitudes about art 7 relates to attitudes about contemporary art 8 an alternative form of archaeology of the past 12 develops an understanding of ritual and symbolism 13 enhances our theory base 14 allows us to think about roots of today’s art 15 further develops the disciplinary history of archaeology 16 a good way of challenging stereotypes of past peoples


Thomas A Dowson is an independent archaeologist. He has held posts at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa), and the Universities of Southampton and Manchester (England). He was the Archaeology Subject Director for the Higher Education Academy’s Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology. His research includes shamanism and the interpretation of rock art, theory and methodology of archaeological approaches to art, the popular representation of prehistoric and ancient artistic traditions, as well as the sexual politics of archaeology. His publications include Rock Engravings of Southern Africa (1992, Witwatersrand University Press) and, with David Lewis-Williams, Images of Power: understanding San rock art (1989, Second edition 2000, Struik). He also edited the Queer Archaeologies volume of World Archaeology (32:2, 2000) and Archaeological Pedagogies (36:2, 2004)

Edited by: Karina Croucher, Archaeology, HE Academy Design: Andy Fairhurst, Gten, University of Manchester

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