I believe that every professional in the business would agree that time in the classroom is finite and valuable. So why do we sometimes give in to the "group work" mentality? We've all had times when it easier to put students together and let them work through problems, questions, or even to start homework before class ended. Our instructions are minimal ("get into groups no larger than four and do problems 1-10 even only"). Sometimes it goes well and other times you may wonder why in the world the students were not working. It's time to go "beyond group work."
Collaboration in the classroom is planned, organized, and with clear objectives in mind. With prior planning it can also be spontaneous. How? Early in the semester create and assign teams, trios, and groups of four. These group assignments do not need to be by name. For me, I used gem names for groups of four (pearl, garnet, diamond, emerald, etc.), trios were numbers (1,2,3), and teams were letters (A Team, Z Team, etc.) While groups of four were set, trios and teams could change. For example, “Get into trios with a one two and three-your choice.” Provide students with a sticker to remind them of their groupings and ask them to place it on their folder for the class, but make sure you have the master copy just in case a student forgot to bring their folder. A sticker would have their name, their gem group, their trio number, and their team letter.
Of course, these can be modified based on personality, academic strength, etc. But the important thing is to plan it, assign it, and stick to it.
When you want students to work in groups, be very specific in directions. (“You will be working in teams today, I want As to work problems 2,4, and Bs 1,3,. Do not share your work yet. At the designated time, A you will work 1, 3 and B you will work 2,4. When time is called, share answers and work through problems if there is a discrepancy.”
There’s a lot going on here. First, the burden of all of the work is not on the “smart” student, a major complaint of high-flyers. For collaboration to really happen, each student has a specific part of the whole assignment. Students must talk to each other vocally explaining how they arrived at their answer. Second, the teacher is monitoring the students. This is critical, especially at the beginning of the semester. As the semester progresses, allow students more freedom because they know what is expected. Finally, for true collaboration to take place, each member of the group must be dependent on others with the group; otherwise, some students slide while others work hard. Make sure students are held accountable for their efforts- as an individual and as part of a team.
There are plenty of ways to teach students (37) that include collaboration as the main strategy. Click on Classroom Protocols, then Collaboration, and start exploring. If you like what you see, let me know. Do you have a strategy that you would like to share? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alison Thetford, M.Ed