Try an idea or a topic for debate with one group and conversation flows. Run it with what appears, on the surface, to be a similar group, and painful silences ensue. The pressure to fill the void and turn a discussion into a monologue is then considerable.
I once had to split a large group into two smaller ones for a practical class in educational technology. They were divided randomly, so they were supposedly "parallel". The first class worked industriously, barely needing my presence. The second group, however, contained a man who was a complete cynic about any artefact developed later than about 1890, and a woman who announced in the first minute of session one that she was terrified of machines.
Unfortunately, the first time the technophobe rewound the tape on her tape recorder, it got caught on a spindle and piled all over her tape deck in tightly kinked loops. She went pale, the cynic announced that it confirmed his worst fears, and the whole group developed a collective terror of flashing lights. It reminded me of Woody Allen's saying that every time he got into a lift it took him down to the basement and beat him up.
Although the roles that people play have been studied for years, each new group has its own fascination. In theory, members will assume a variety of roles: the joker, who reduces or sometimes heightens tension; the servicer, who opens windows and switches lights on and off; the aspirant leader, who tries to wrench control away from the chairman. In practice it is more subtle. The aspirant leader may use humour rather than force, so as to blur edges between roles.
Despite the attractiveness of all that apparent variance, there is one widespread feature of today's groups of students that worries me enormously.
When I first came into university teaching, in the late Sixties, there was much revolutionary fervour. Tutorial groups, certainly on social policy issues, were often characterised by dissent. Former groups of students were eager to challenge orthodoxy, but today's groups are keen to embrace it.
Increased pressure to achieve can put huge emphasis on orthodoxy. Maybe that is the legacy of Thatcherism. Central government has taken control of many areas of educational policy: a national curriculum, national testing, a tightly prescribed literacy hour. If you want to get on, you must learn orthodoxy. Indeed, university tutors are attacked as subversives if they gainsay it.
This poses a dilemma. Universities try to develop students' critical faculties, and dissecting issues in small groups has traditionally been one of the ways in which this has been done. The fluid dynamics of group discourse offer a variety of options. Dissent can be a powerful driving force within a debate. Yet drifting "off message" is regarded as a late- 20th-century social crime.
Meanwhile other countries, such as Japan, aspire to "individualism". We envy their accuracy, industry and meticulous attention to detail, and seek to emulate them through conformity to a national corporate plan. They envy our inventiveness and imagination, and want to move away from uncritical compliance.
In mid-19th-century France teacher-training institutions were regarded as hotbeds of radicalism. They were tolerated only because of a shortage of teachers - a situation not unlike that in Britain in recent years. Right-wing think-tanks have regularly demonised the social sciences, especially sociology and education.
In the Eighties the government even insisted that what used to be called the Social Science Research Council should change its name, fearful that the very word "science" might give it potency. No one wanted to inquire whether this was happening in other countries, or even look up the etymology of the word.
Dissent from orthodoxy may be uncomfortable, but a healthy democracy must tolerate peaceful protest, especially from the young. The good old tutorial group has fomented many an impassioned argument. What a pity if the millennium ended with its having been quietly sedated.
The writer is professor of education at the University of ExeterReuse content