Have you ever decided to use group work in one of your classes only to have it very quickly turn to chaos?
When I first started teaching Year 1 I had just this experience. I was so excited to use group work because I had read all the literature on how students learn better in social situations. I was convinced my students were going to benefit so much because of this wonderful cooperative learning strategy.
Of course what ended up happening was just a mess! There were kids rolling around on the floor, some of them were bossing the others around and some went off on their own to read in the reading corner. It was an unmitigated disaster!
What I learnt from that experience was to be well prepared and to set the students up for success by:
1. Explicitly teaching the students clear expectations for the behaviour you want to see during cooperative learning and giving them opportunities to practise using role plays and simulations.
2. Allowing the students to work in pairs first before introducing group work. Pairs are easier to manage while they are still learning how to listen, take turns, work with different people, and listen to another’s point of view. Some proponents even recommend students work in pairs with every person in the class before attempting group work.
3. Giving the class lots of opportunities to work in pairs using think, pair, share; pair tasks, peer tutoring, prepares them for the more complex task of working in groups.
When you do move to group work:
1. Negotiate with the whole class a charter of how to work successfully in groups. Provide all groups with written charter of how to work successfully in groups.
2. Group the students heterogeneously, that is, varied abilities within one group which will keep the groups equitable. They will also be more likely to work at the same level and pace reducing the likelihood of off task behaviour when they finish.
3. Give each of the students a clearly defined role in the group e.g. leader, time keeper, scribe. Teach them how to fulfil the given role and practise. This will ensure each of the students feels valuable to the group thereby reducing any temptation to disrupt or be off task.
4. Make sure the task you set is suitable for group work: interest level is high, resources are appropriate and plentiful, the task is challenging but not too difficult and all students can contribute.
5. Be clear about what you expect the groups to achieve. Provide visual instructions for them to refer and examples.
6. Explicitly teach group work behaviours through the use of simulations and the fishbowl technique. The fishbowl is demonstrated by having a group of students sit in the middle of a circle working as a group. The task of the students on the outer circle is to evaluate and analyse what the group is doing well and how they could improve.
7. The role of the teacher during group time is to roam and give specific feedback to groups as they work. Timely feedback will help students identify what successful group work looks like and how to improve performance.
8. Include a reflection time at the end of group work to evaluate what went well and how things could be improved. Have students reflect on their own behaviour in the group and whether or not they contributed to successful group work.