Education Week: Effective Group Work Starts With Classroom Culture

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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 Adeyemi, Candace, Jacki and Mary Beth on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here

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.