The first time I put students in groups I thought I'd lose my mind. It was chaos! What was I thinking? There is nothing that can ruin your day (as well as that of the students') faster than cooperative groups that devolve into chaos. But cooperative groups are great for learning...right??? I wasn't so sure, but over time, I knew I had to read the research. That made me realize that if I wanted my students to really think deeper, gain communication skills, and really (and I mean REALLY) learn the content, then I had to learn how it was done!
Why does working in groups work so well for students? I think it's because we are tapping into a basic part of our human evolution. We are social creatures that work together to solve problems. I don't think that caveman thought he could bring down a mammoth by himself! If our students are deprived of the time they need to work with each other, behavior management gets harder and kids are less happy. In my own classroom, I discovered that after group work, students were ready to work alone, and even that distracting classroom chatterbox was quieter. The trick to tapping into this powerful tool is preparation. Below is the procedure I used that was very successful. I ended up doing group work in some form many times a day. Sometimes it was just to choose a partner and read or discuss something for a few minutes, sometimes it was to do experiements, sometimes to brainstorm. Does it work? All I can say is everytime I was observed by the principal she would remark on how well the kids got into groups, and stayed on task. They did, and more importantly, they learned lots!
1. Gather students and discuss the rules for group work. My main rule for getting into groups is: If you do not have a partner and someone asks to be your partner, that is a huge complement. It is rude and cruel to say no. If someone asks to be your partner and you already have one, tell them you will be their partner next time....and mean it. Students have to understand that being rejected hurts. Learning how to work with everyone is a life skill that begins right here. Then practice. I have students practice choosing a partner two or three times, and responding politely and kindly to each other. We keep practicing until they get it right. I always start with selecting one partner. Self-choosing larger groups would work the same, but starting with a partner is enough to begin with. Each time we go into groups throughout the year, we go over this rule again. Often I tell students they must choose a partner that they have never had before, or have not often worked with. This gets them out of always pairing with their best buddy. I do put students into groups myself when I have a particular purpose for doing so, but I prefer to give kids some choice in the matter. It has been my experience that it works better that way. If I have two kids who should NEVER work together, I talk with them privately and tell them they can spend all the time together at recess that they want, but in groups I want them to branch out and experience other people. Actually what I want to say is "You guys drive me to an early grave when you work together, knock it off!" But I don't.
2. Have a procedure in place once partners are chosen. Decide ahead of time where you want students to go. Should they choose a spot on the floor, pull two chairs togeher, push desks together? Vary where students work, as variety spices things up a bit. It's amazing how just changing where groups go puts a smile on their face. I don't understand it, but it does. Write this on the board. Then write other directions students should follow. Be specific about the job to be done and the product (if any) that will be made. If students are getting together just to read, you may write on the board where they will go, what is to be read, go over listening skills for the child listening, and at what point readers switch. Students have to know for sure what they are to do in the group, without that, the group goes to "chaos" in a flash. The LAST thing you want to happen is for kids to get into their group and ask, "What do we do?" and get the answer, "I don't know!"
3. Before releasing students, go over the behavior you expect to see. All students must participate and all opinions must be heard without making fun of anyone. This is absolute. If I see someone abusing the group rules they must sit out and not participate. I usually have to do this a time or two at the beginning of each year. Once kids know I mean business, they do whatever they can to stay in the group. Kids love working in groups and don't want to miss it.
4. When first starting groups during the school year, bring the class together after group work and discuss what worked and what didn't. What can be done to make groups run smoother next time? Discuss with students why there are strick rules about kindness when chosing a partner, and kindness in dealing with all partners in a group. If working in groups of three or more, how did they get all members of the group to participate?
5. If you are ready to get your students working in groups, think about your seat arrangement. I always arrange seats in tables of five or six. Then when I want a larger group they are already seated in one. No choosing is necessary. I change groups around every couple of weeks, just so they don't always have to work with the same people. When working in a larger group like this, it is helpful to have a procedure in place when working through projects (like science). In that case the group chooses a recorder, a "getter" who collects materials needed, a "putter" who puts things away, and a student to report findings. Other group members are "the brains" who help complete the task.
6. Kids like to report what they learned, discovered, or wrote in their groups. Giving each group a minute or two for the reporter to "report" is a nice way to share information and bring the lesson to a close.
My job is to circulate like crazy while students work in groups. That way, I can defuse problems before they start, find students who are hogging the floor, or remediate misunderstandings. The more kids work in groups, the better they get at it. After a month or so my students can get into pairs, or groups of three in a minute or two. It takes practice, and I have to be really consistent in making sure rules are followed, but the results are worth it!
What would you add to help students work in groups? Add your commments below!