As adults, no doubt we’ve had many opportunities to work in groups ourselves. Perhaps it’s collaborative planning with colleagues or our own experiences as a student. Some were probably successful. Others have left us frustrated and thinking, I could have just done this myself. As a teacher, I’ve even considered not even attempting group work because I knew I would spend the entire class period trying to make sure everyone was contributing or that some people weren’t taking over. Many times it wasn’t worth the effort because kids just couldn’t handle group work. This is until I learned that there is a dangerous myth surrounding group work that says “put students in a group and they’ll work together.” The reality is that group work necessitates thoughtful structures and planning in order to work well.
Question #1: Do students need (really need) each other to complete this task/assignment?
I think we can all agree that working in groups is an important skill, but if the only reason students are working together is because you want them to, it may not be good enough. Any task you design for group work should necessitate collaboration with others. If it doesn’t, what is the motivation for students to work together? Can you blame them if they revert to working independently or if a few students step aside and let everyone else do the work?
Increasing the complexity of thinking required so two (or more) heads will be better than one.
Change the product or what students are expected to complete so ALL students must actively participate. (One teacher used a protocol in which the recorder of the group had to change so all students ended up needing to write at some point).
Designating roles for each member so the final product/assignment cannot be completed without each student fulfilling their responsibility (see # 3).
Changing the group size. Does it take the work of four students? Two? The group size should match the amount of thinking/work required by the task.
Question #2: What opportunities am I providing for groups to know each other?
I’ve used group work in almost all my projects and students make the most effective use of the strategy when they know each other. When they (not just me) know the strengths of each member and can anticipate where students might struggle. Although your class may have been together for an entire term, does everyone know the names of the other members in their group? You assume they do, but it’s worth spending some time building culture within the groups themselves.
Using 10 minutes at the beginning of each lesson for a “Team Challenge Game.” Check out all of these. Don’t forget to debrief the game, asking students to reflect on their own contributions and how they can improve.
Treat each new project (or new group) as the beginning of the year and use it as an opportunity to reset the culture of your classroom, with these new groups in mind.
Provide a social opportunity for groups. Order pizza for the last 10 minutes of class and make the only rule: you must sit with your group!
Question #3: How can I maximise collaboration within the group?
Many times, students will work adequately in groups. Most participate, but in many groups there is still one student who will take over or a few that will sit back. Careful planning for how groups will work together can help.
An important role for each group member and specific tasks for what that role is responsible for. By students to choose their roles within groups, they are more likely to have more clarity around how they can contribute to the group. If you struggle to identify enough roles for each person in the group, go back to idea #1 on this list. Role Ideas: Facilitator, Leader, Secretary, Questioner, Spokesperson, Timekeeper, Summarizer, Reflector, Elaborator, Custodian, Devil’s Advocate, Harmonizer, Runner.
Instead of giving students 45 minutes to work together, use a protocol. Protocols are great for structured conversations. They support equity in participation within the group and can be used in a variety of contexts and subject areas. Check out this list from Expeditionary Learning. My personal favorites are World Cafe and Final Word.
Question #4: How am I supporting students in developing their group work SKILLS?
Learning to collaborate, communicate and work in a group is a skill. Most of us are not born with the innate ability to listen respectfully and compromise, we have learned it. Expecting students to solve their own conflicts, like when one student isn’t contributing, is unrealistic. They need to be explicitly taught what makes a good team member and what to do when there is an issue. The time investment in giving students tools to work together will be worth it.
Identifying together what skills it takes to work in a team and reflect on these skills each time students work in a group. Perhaps even select one skill each day and make that the focus.
As I saw a teacher do last week, watch an episode of the Young Apprentice with your class. Debrief what you see. Who is contributing? Who isn’t? Stop the video at various points and discuss. Who would you fire and why?
If there are problems within a group, talk about it. Give your students guidance on what to do if conflict arises or if some students aren’t contributing.
Question #5: How does the physical space support group work?
If students are working in a group of four, are they actually in a group of four? Can you physically see which students are working together? Groups where students are loosely associated with each other makes communication difficult and creates a ripe environment for distractions.
Making a game out of rearranging the space, especially if you change rooms often. See how fast students can put tables/chairs in groups of four and record the time. Add additional challenges like “arrange without talking” or “beat the other classes’ time” to change it up. Eventually, your class will automatically start to rearrange even before you’ve told them to.
Use a large common space for activities that need movement or groups to change members.
Allow groups to work where they want. Draw up a space on a white board with options for where groups can work and have them write their group name under the space during work time. It keeps them accountable and makes it easy to know where students are.
Bottom line: group work only gets better when we design thoughtful and purposeful experiences for students to work in them. My advice? Do less and do it better.