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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Effective Group Work Starts With Classroom Culture

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 26, 2019 18 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How can teachers maximize student learning gained by group work?

Group work can be an engaging and academically rewarding instructional strategy—when done well. Of course, as with most instructional strategies, it can also turn into a disaster when done poorly.

This series will explore how teachers can increase their odds of success when having students work in groups.

Today’s contributors are Karen Goeller, Jill Kester, Rachael Williams, Kara Pranikoff, and Cheryl Mizerny. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Karen, Jill, and Rachael on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in The Best Posts On The Basics Of Small Groups In The Classroom and in The Best Sites For Cooperative & Collaborative Learning Ideas, as well as in previous posts appearing here on Project-Based Learning.

Response From Karen Goeller

Dr. Karen Goeller serves as a K-12 deputy superintendent and adjunct instructor for graduate leadership education. She has been a curriculum director, assistant principal, dean, and teacher. She recently published Six Steps to Boost Student Learning: A Leader’s Guide (New York: Routledge, 2018):

Classroom Teams

During athletic events, coaches frequently convey the inspirational message that the players’ success depends on teamwork. During academic lessons, too, teachers must champion the same message for students. Students should be given chances to work together in classroom teams, supporting and pushing each other toward higher goals.

Creating classroom teams maximizes student learning effectively and efficiently. With the teacher’s thoughtful planning ahead of time, this instructional strategy works extremely well for not only growing student learning but also for cultivating healthy student relationships within classrooms.

Having a clear purpose for the classroom teams is crucial. When first beginning with different kinds of classroom teams, the teacher should determine the purpose of each activity and share the specific tasks and/or processes that need to be accomplished.

When working with a large classroom of students, designing classroom teams may sound overwhelming, but several ready formats, depending on the instructional focus, can simplify the process. Three easy types of classroom teams include:

Learning Teams

Teachers frequently arrange students in a variety of learning teams to grow from collective learning. Students quickly realize that when teachers say, “Move to your learning teams,” that the work will be aligned with the daily lessons and structured around clear goals and expected tasks. For instance, learning teams might be used to preview a unit scheduled to begin the following day. Students might be tasked with completing a graphic organizer together to give them more background knowledge from the many and varied experiences of team members. Grouping students of a wide range of academic abilities encourages some students to stretch thinking and others to consider content from different angles and discover more learning.

Corner-Conversation Teams

For students of all ages and even in crowded classrooms, corner-conversation teams are ready forums for stimulating thinking by allowing ideas to expand and quickly multiply. Movement brings new energy to daily lessons as teachers ask students to quickly move to assigned corners of the room. Tasks are already posted, leaving room for written group responses and/or individual sticky-note comments. Students interact around substantive topics and strengthen critical-thinking skills. Talking together about their learning links classroom content to more personal and real-world settings. Mixing students frequently adds new voices and cultural perspectives to conversations.

Project-Based Teams

Students can self-select from a menu of project ideas or join with others to work on a project of their own. Well-established rubrics, given ahead of time, clarify expectations for quality project work. From this teacher guidance, students collaboratively work through the production process, talking, analyzing, and learning from peers about expending energy and effort to perform at higher levels. Students learn to think in more calculated ways in the midst of production. The focus on sequence, steps, evaluation, and reflection extends these better work habits into other learning areas.

Building classroom teams offers three important outcomes: improved content and process skills, enhanced peer relationships, and increased motivation and engagement. Not only are teachers designing classrooms that boost cognitive skills and abilities, but they are also going deeper to shape student relationships in authentic ways, resulting in more productive and healthy classrooms. And, best of all, with the action-oriented teams and thought-provoking tasks, teachers and students have fun in the process!

Response From Jill Kester

Jill Kester is a senior associate at SupportEd, LLC, a woman-owned small business based in the Washington area that supports ELLs’ and their families’ educational equity by providing professional development and technical assistance to schools and districts. She wears many hats in her work as project manager, teacher trainer, online content designer, and course facilitator. She has worked in the field of TESOL and TEFL for more than 20 years and continues to be excited about supporting collaborative learning and teaching!

Effective group work starts with the culture in the classroom. Do you have agreed upon group norms that reflect cultural awareness and opportunities for all to participate? Some educators begin the year by developing group norms with their students. Not all norms need to be negotiated—as the educator, your role is explicitly to frame the behavioral expectations for each activity.

Have you taught and rehearsed the procedures for each activity? It is recommended that when introducing new activities, new content isn’t introduced at the same time. This will allow students to focus on the procedures while reviewing previously learned content. For example, when teaching an activity such as Jot Thoughts, instruct students to brainstorm features of plant and animal cells, a unit they finished the previous quarter. Additionally, if the activity involves different roles, are you introducing, modeling, and practicing each role separately? This applies to activities with steps as well. An activity like Think Pair Share can have much greater impact if each step is clearly described, modeled, and displayed for students’ reference.

2. How have I designed the task to be an effective learning opportunity for the group?

In order for the task to be an effective learning opportunity, there needs to be an authentic reason for the group to work together. It cannot consist of the same work students are able to accomplish independently. In addition to this sense of interdependence, there needs to be individual responsibility and accountability. Spencer Kagan provides helpful examples and ideas in this 2011 article. Finally, strategically consider strengths, language, and personality when designing groups. When students choose their groups, they may not be using the same criteria.

3. Have you structured supports for your ELs to participate and learn from the group activity?

Start with ensuring your ELs understand the directions. First, model the activity (or the step) yourself. Then, carefully select a student to model with you. Next, select two students to try it in front of the class. You can also have students explain to each other in the group what they are to do. Each group can then be accountable for making sure everyone in the group understands.

ELs may need a variety of supports depending on the activity and their proficiency levels. Identify the language needed for participating in the group activity and preteach when needed. Often whole classes can benefit from mini-lessons on topics such as ways to politely express a difference in opinion. The materials the students use can be scaffolded according to proficiency levels.

Final Suggestions

If the group activity does not go as planned, do not give up on the activity or group work. Rather, check the task design&mash;is it designed for students to need to work together? Is there individual accountability? Is the task created with sufficient relevance and engagement? Is it the right activity for the learning goal? Often it is a problem of procedures. Have you clearly modeled and explained them? Are they displayed? Sometimes you just need to reteach and rerehearse the procedures and expectations. In addition, ensure your ELs’ participation is sufficiently supported with scaffolded materials and strategically selected groups.

Infographic via SupportEd

Response From Rachael Williams

Rachael Williams is a teacher and Year 9 learning leader at Ballarat Grammar School in Australia. She enjoys learning and teaching and writing about learning and teaching. You can follow her on Twitter @teachermojo:

The best way to maximise student learning gained by group work is to ensure that the group functions effectively. Students working in groups must have a shared goal and understand how to work together successfully to meet that goal.

One of the biggest mistakes that teachers can make is expecting students to work together effectively before having a set of clearly defined classroom values and expectations. The most important of these for working in groups is the expectation that every student is willing to work with any other student in the room. Teachers should not be shy about calling out the muffled groans and imperceptible eye rolls that sometimes occur when students are asked to work with a particular peer. Making it clear that these “under the radar” micro-aggressions are unacceptable is a critical step in establishing a safe and inclusive classroom, the bedrock of effective group work.

Another potential error is to assume that students know what it means to be an effective group member. While students may have been expected to work in groups previously, they may not have received any instruction about what it means to be a valuable group member. Establishing success criteria or a clear rubric for classroom collaboration involves all students in the process of unpacking what effective group work looks, sounds, and feels like. This often works best if teachers give students a chance to think about and discuss effective collaboration alone or in pairs, before establishing a shared agreement (as seen below).

Photo by Rachael Williams

Encouraging students to take an active role in this process ensures that they have a clear understanding of the expectations for successfully working in groups. In some circumstances, it might be more appropriate for students to be presented with a set criteria but it must be written in clearly accessible, student-friendly language.

If students are to develop effective group-work skills, they need multiple opportunities to practise. Teachers often employ small-group discussion or collaboration as an instructional strategy, and this offers the perfect opening for refining effective collaborative skills. When a learning goal is established, students can be asked to consider which elements of effective group work will be critical to meeting their goal. Once the class has agreed on the key collaborative skills needed to complete the learning activity, they can get to work, knowing that they will later assess themselves or peers in relation to the agreed elements. This process primes students to monitor their attitudes and behaviour during learning and to strive to be an effective group member.

Like anything else that teachers ask of students in the classroom, the success of learning within groups depends on the task or goal toward which the group is working. If students see the learning goal as worthwhile and relevant in the real world, they are much more likely to engage in the habits of effective group members. If the success of the group relies on the active participation of all group members, involving them in deep thinking, problem-solving and effective communication, then students are more likely to see their individual contribution as vital.

Response From Kara Pranikoff

Kara Pranikoff is a elementary school teacher at a public school in New York City. Her book, Teaching Talk: A Practical Guide to Fostering Student Thinking and Conversation (Heinemann, 2017), shares many ways to keep the balance of classroom discussion in the hands of the students:

I enter my classroom at the end of summer. The walls are newly white, and the floors brilliant with their recent coat of wax. All tape marks and scuffs erased by the summer cleaning. The closet doors crack open, revealing the wall of boxes that were neatly stacked six weeks ago. Carefully packed and labeled so that they could be unwrapped during this week, gifts to celebrate the new year.

The magic of teaching is that somehow each year has its own unique flavor. While content may remain similar, the players are different. No group of students is the same, and so September feels fresh, no matter how many years you’ve been in the classroom. It’s the ultimate reset.

Every year a teacher must establish, early on, the ways the group will work together. This requires a vision of what’s important about the dynamics of the learning in her room. Then, she must get the community—the new students in front of her—to buy in. Some call this “management,” and certainly a teacher needs to know how to control a group of students so that the classroom runs efficiently. This in and of itself is often a feat. But what I’m talking about is slightly different. Much deeper than management, I believe the teacher’s job is to help the group learn to learn together. This takes students committing to be invested in their independent work as well as the learning of the group. This is what makes a classroom hum.

John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic and social thinker declared this formula for allowing people to take pleasure in the workplace:

“In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: They must be fit for it; They must not do too much of it; and they must have a sense of success in it.”

While he was writing about society at large, these qualities can help us develop group work in elementary education where everyone benefits.

Students must be fit for their work: Differentiate

It’s understood that the individuals in your classroom are just that, individuals. Each student has their strengths and challenges, their preferences and dislikes. If the group is going to work well as a whole, individual needs must be met. We have to consider entry points and learning styles. It’s our primary job to give everyone access to the task at hand. The strength of the whole is built by the strengths of each component.

Students must not do too much work: Laugh

Every year in my classroom I hang a sign that reads: “If you’re too busy to laugh, you’re too busy.” The reigning cry from teachers these days is that the days do not get longer, but the requirements continue to grow. This is the true. But as classroom leaders, we have more control than we think. Rather than working from a deficit model, focusing on how much we have to get done in a period or an hour, let’s take a long view: Our students have a lot to learn, but we have 180 days to learn it. We have enough time to work and to laugh. Your students needs to know that quantity of work does not equate to strong learning. Quality is what we are aiming for, as well as some laughter and fun.

Students must have a sense of success in their work: Process

We have the chance to help shape the way that students view themselves as learners. The language we use, and our reactions to group work, form our students’ definition of success. Group work is maximized when it’s clear that both the content of the work and the process of the work hold importance. We are training individuals to be active in the classroom now, which will give them the grounding they need to be active citizens in their future community—this is critical. So we must spend equal time helping students develop a process for working together, in addition to focusing on the completion of a final product. We can name what went well in the group and make plans for improvement. The focus on process develops skills like patience and respect and recognition of the other.

Response From Cheryl Mizerny

Cheryl Mizerny has been teaching for over 20 years, is passionate about middle-level education, and serves on the faculty of the AMLE Leadership Institute. Her practice is guided by her belief in reaching every student and educating the whole child. She currently teaches 6th grade English in Michigan and writes an education blog, It’s Not Easy Being Tween, for Middleweb.com:

In my experience, both as a teacher and a learner, I’ve found that the smartest person in the room is the room. Research backs this up and proves the old adage that two heads are better than one.

While I don’t want students to collaborate 100 percent of the time, I do incorporate productive group work regularly. In order for a group to be truly productive, the right circumstances need to be established. Once they are set up, the amount they learn from one another is often greater than as individuals. Equally important are the social and emotional skills practiced during collaboration. Productive group work does not mean being thrown together in a group with a task to accomplish and then being left to their own devices. This is when the (usually) bossy leader rises to the top, the worker bees are frantic in making sure the task is completed, and the others are left out, either willingly or intentionally. This is not an ideal situation for learning to occur. Fisher and Frey (see citation) define Collaborative Learning as “The teacher designs and supervises tasks that enable students to consolidate their thinking and understanding—and that require students to generate individual products that can provide formative-assessment information.”

In my classroom, group work provides the transition between whole-group instruction and independent assessment. Before I turn my students loose and just tell them to work together, I build in the capacity they need for making it function as intended. I do mini-lessons on active and encouraging listening, taking turns, including everyone in the group, and asking relevant questions. And we practice these several times through fun activities and games. Then I’m ready to release the reins on something that counts.

One of my favorite ways to incorporate group work is through Collaborative Concept Attainment. This strategy can be used whenever there is a topic that has specific criteria such as components of a personal narrative, causes of the Civil War, geometric formulas, or dichotomous keys. I provide students with several examples of the concept (nonexamples may also be included depending on your topic), and they work together to determine the characteristics. We then do a share out where we go around the room and share one criterion at a time until we’ve covered them all and every group has a complete list. I ensure accuracy and also add any they may have missed at the end. This tends to feel like a puzzle to them, and they retain the information much longer because they worked together to determine the list. It’s also a more effective way of taking notes because they organize and phrase the material in a way that makes sense to them.

In addition to concept attainment, I utilize a lot of group problem-solving activities, peer coaching, and visible-thinking routines. The students enjoy these, and it takes me out of the center of the action to observe everyone to see what is needed next. Productive group work is great for formative assessment and practice as well. Finally, it gives students an appropriate way to channel their need to socialize and learn positive ways of interacting with others. Once the stage for group work is set, let the show go on!

Citation: Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility (2nd ed.), by D. Fisher & N. Frey, 2013, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Copyright 2013 by ASCD.

Thanks to Karen, Jill, Rachael, Kara, and Cheryl for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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