How do we ensure that the time we commit to group work is used productively? This is a major concern for any teacher who is beginning the shift away from the traditional teaching model and toward the student-centered classroom. For me, the secret is planning. Just because you've given up your power as the keeper of all knowledge doesn't mean you shouldn't orchestrate every aspect of your classroom from behind the scenes. This article from Edutopia offers some great places to begin this process. Below, I expand on some ideas from the Edutopia article and share a few of my own practices that have been successful in the past.
1.) If you're not familiar with John Hattie begin reading up on Visible Learning. I imagine every district in the country has discussed writing lesson objectives and, in many cases, created ardent opponents of the practice. However, Hattie's rationale for learning targets and success criteria should obliterate any knee jerk opposition you may have for clarifying your lesson's goals. Learning Targets, when used correctly, create clarity that allows students (and their groups) to assess themselves, which in turn, creates an internal feedback loop that fast forwards their own learning. This type of clarity not only helps students stay on task but, by forcing us to always consider the students' perspective, sharpens our own lesson planning skills.
2.) Do not assign roles. This goes against what many cooperative learning books may espouse but from my experience, roles ruin group work. Why? Because kids follow the rules. The scribe writes, the reporter reports, the leader leads, the time keeper counts the seconds and no one does any thinking because thinking is not part of anyone's job description. Even when you do make it part of every job description, codify this in writing, glue it to the table, and read and reread it before every class, some students will insist on sticking to their lane because roles give students something they can do, allowing them to avoid the challenge of the mathematical work that they believe they can't do.
3.) Hold students accountable. On the small scale, this means making sure that every student is producing a product from their group work. Even if you ask them to brain storm, insist that each student creates a list of three ideas. Otherwise, they won't do it. But accountability for many students begins and ends with grades so make sure that some group work is graded. How do you grade group work? Make it simple. Create a rubric with checks, check plusses and check minuses, explain it to the class and then monitor groups' work with a clipboard in hand. Clipboards keep students on task and they will see that you're serious about your expectations. It's important, though, that these grades be part of an effort or work habits grade. It should not be an academic grade because we're not assessing a student's understanding of the standards but rather are quantifying their "effort" in completing classwork. This grade is not merely show for the kids or busy work for you. In fact, in my experience, this effort grade, which I included homework assignments, was where I began every conversation I had with a parent because effort, above all else, is the key to success.
4.) Assess group progress. It's important that the work given has an objective or target tied to the standard and that you monitor groups' progress towards this end. To do this, you should create in your lesson plan rigorous questions for you to ask groups as you monitor the room. My approach was to direct these questions to the group-member who traditionally struggled the most in my class. My rationale for this was two-fold. First, it allowed me to assess the group dynamic and address issues if group expectations were not being met; namely that kids were not working together. Second, it allowed me to sequence students' ideas about the question being asked. After listening to the first student's response, I'd ask a second student (the second most struggling student) to answer the same question in their own words. By the time, I reached the fourth student, the most advanced, the group would have a thorough and articulate answer to my question that each member had contributed to. In addition, I would have a solid assessment of where each student stood in terms of the lesson's learning target.
Student centered classrooms ask our middle school students to become respectful, collaborative, critical thinking problem solvers. This, of course, does not happen naturally. Instead, successful group work stems from meticulous planning on our part. It's difficult and daunting and a lot of hard work; however, it's also great teaching.