I believe that most teachers don’t really know what is going on socially in their classroom. Not because they aren’t paying attention or because they don’t care, but because much of the social interaction – especially negative interactions – happen at lunch or recess, before or after school, or intentionally behind the teacher’s back. As adults we can’t really, truly know what is going on. Sure, we know who is super popular and who is neglected or rejected, but that still leaves a lot of unknown territory.
And that makes group work tricky because all of those unknown status hierarchies get carried into the group. Add to that the varying academic abilities of your students. Add to that the fact that there are more and more kids with various special needs – Aspergers, sensory integration issues, ADHD, not to mention any number of quirky tendencies that can make group work challenging.
Yet group work is important. Kids need to learn to work in groups. So what can we do to help? Here are some ideas:
Make the Groups – Don’t Allow Students to Choose
There are several reasons for this. First, when students are allowed to choose their group members, some kids get left out. This is beyond hurtful. When they are finally assigned to a group, they know they are not wanted. Also, students do not always make the best choices for group mates. Finally, if you do the grouping, you can balance them socially and academically. Even if you don’t want to group them yourself, using popsicle sticks or some other random method is still better than allowing kids to group themselves.
Set Ground Rules about Behavior
At the top of the list should be treating everyone in the group fairly and with respect. Dividing work fairly and listening to everyone’s ideas should be in there as well. You might also have a plan for mediating disputes within the group.
Give Everyone a Job
One of the main problems with group work is that often one or two kids do the majority of the work while the rest of the group members slack off. By dividing the work involved in the project into parts so that each person has their part, you can make sure everyone does his or her share.
Grade the Project Both as a Group and Individually
When students know that they will be graded on their individual contributions, they are less likely to let others do all the work.
Check in Frequently
Check in with groups frequently to make sure they are on schedule and that they are all getting along. Monitoring group work time is one informal way. You could also talk with groups about how things are going or have a formal timetable for them to follow.
Plan Diverse Projects
For long-term projects especially, try to have many components so that everyone can find a place to fit in. This is especially important for struggling students who may feel that their contribution will be sub-par. If there are many different aspects to the projects, odds are everyone can find a way to contribute that is valuable to the group.
Plan Carefully for Quirky Kids
Some kids have a really hard time working in groups. My son was one of these. Now in high school, he does fine in groups, but in elementary school and even junior high, group work was extremely stressful – not just for him, but also for the other kids in his group. You probably have one or two kids like this in your class. Assign them carefully and monitor closely. With the proper guidance, the project could become a tremendous learning opportunity for these kids. But left to their own devices, they are very likely to crash and burn.