Group Work: Solving Problems and Raising the Level of Discussions

This series is called “Just Like Starting Over” because there are points throughout the semester (breaks, starting new units, abandoning disaster situations, etc.) in which we are given the opportunity to start over. In this series I’ll be asking a few important questions of myself, and in turn, of you, dear reader: what if you could–blank slate–start over as a teacher? What would you keep? What would you change? Which lessons and systems would you, as Marie Kondo suggests, hold in your hands and thank for their service to you before sending them away?

Road Trip Mix Album Cover

Two Common Problems

Full engagement from each individual is probably the stickiest of wickets when it comes to group work. I mean, even when we involve students in setting norms and ground rules, it seems like there are still kids who struggle to work with others! Engaging in group work is tough for so many reasons, and getting other people to engage in group work is even tougher.

Lucky for us, Ellin Oliver Keene wrote a book for us, and it’s all about engagement!

In Engaging Children Keene describes four pillars of Engagement:

  1. Intellectual Urgency: “I have to know more.”
  2. Emotional Resonance: “I react to an idea and get it into my heart as well as my mind.”
  3. Perspective Bending: “Other learners affect my thinking. I affect theirs.”
  4. The Aesthetic World: “This book [or idea or experience] is so cool. It’s mine and I’m drawn to it. It feels like it was created just for me. It’s beautiful [or hilarious or amazing].

As I dig into my own practices around co-operative learning, I’m leaning hard into setting up experiences for students that will be engaging–but it’s easier said than done.  In Engaging Children, Keene notes that kids are better problem solvers than we realize, and she recommends responding to students’ issues with questions like, “How might you solve this problem.” I have been using this strategy in my classroom these last few weeks, and I have been surprised by how many problems students end up working out on their own–especially the ones that I might have solved for them before!

But sometimes, I ask groups, “How might you solve this problem?” and they respond, “Kick him out of our group?”

Positive Peer Pressure to Solve Problems

When I think of group work problems, the most common issue that comes to mind is what happens when some group members don’t carry their share of the load.

A few weeks ago, as students held book club discussions, I noticed that one student had disengaged from his club and was now sitting away from his group. I asked what was up, and several of his group-mates chimed in that he hadn’t completed the amount of reading that the group agreed to. I asked a few questions to better understand the situation, and it turned out that they had decided to read at home in order to finish the book on time, but the falling-behind-child was only reading during class time. When he’d shown up last time without having read his quota, his fellow book club members expressed frustration, which had upset him. So, the boy, to avoid the fight this time, had just chosen to sit somewhere else.

I asked the book club if they had ever struggled at something, and they nodded. I asked them, “If someone were to say something that would motivate you to not give up, what might that sound like?” We discussed ideas for how we can encourage a struggling partner, and came up with, “_______, we really want to hear your ideas because you’re a pretty deep thinker. Is there something we can do to help you catch up?”

I sat off to the side while a couple of students from the book club tried this line out on the disengaged student. A minute later, they returned and said that he was going to come in early tomorrow to catch up on his reading. The previously disengaged student joined the group’s discussion, and later, at lunchtime, he came to my room to read. He also showed up the next morning to get some extra reading in. I’m sure this strategy won’t work every time with every student, but this student had caught up to his group by the time they met again later in the week. In fact, he kept up with his book club, minus one relapse, from then on out.

The fact of the matter is accountability measures may have worked on us as kids, but they rarely work on the kids who struggle the most. These kids, as Dr. Ross Greene (I know! I mention this person in every other post!) points out, would probably do the work if they could, but they are lacking certain skills. Fortunately, in most, if not all cases, these skills can be taught, as long as they are correctly identified–and as long as the teacher is willing and able to collaborate with the student(s).

In the case of the group I mentioned above, the struggling student was capable of doing the work, but maybe there were too many distractions in his life. When his classmates were taught positive and effective ways to encourage those who struggle, it provided the nudge our struggling student needed to solve his own problem by showing up early to school to get his work done.

Raising the Level of Discussion When a Group is Light on Extroverts

On another occasion, an inquiry group was struggling to keep their conversations going, and in turn, to support their partners’ ideas. All four students happened to be introverts. I had to really pause and think on this one because, having read Susan Cain’s work, I know that pushing introverts to “be less shy” is neither helpful or beneficial. So, I started by complimenting the group, saying, “You know, the best thing about you four is that in a world full of talkers, you choose to listen. The thing is, when a group of listeners are in a group, they often face a challenge in that it’s hard to exchange ideas if someone doesn’t get things started.” They nodded. I asked if I could give them a tip. They nodded again. I continued, “It’s a myth that in order to have a good conversation, you have to say something smart. Usually, the best conversations start with a question and an invitation.” They looked confused by this one. I added, “So, pretend I’m in your group, and I’m not the kind of person who likes to talk a lot. Watch what I do, and then I’ll have you try it.”

I turned to the student on my left, “So, __________, what are you working on?” He answered, and I said, “Oh, cool. How’s it going with that?” He said, it was going okay, but he wasn’t sure how to dig deeper into his research. I said, “Okay. Freeze everybody.” I turned away from Carl to the rest of the group, “What do you all think? Any recommendations?” They shifted uncomfortably for a second, and then one started to answer.

After this student gave some advice, I asked the students if they noticed what I did that they might also try. They noticed I had started by asking a group-mate about his project. I asked if they noticed what I did next, and they pointed out that I asked the rest of the group for their ideas.

I said, “So, I want you to notice that the secret to being a good group leader is not being the one with the best idea. A good group leader asks other group members questions to get things started, and when they aren’t sure of what advice to give, they ask the rest of the group to see if someone else does. If listening is your super-power, you’ve got to get people talking. Okay, now, I’ll sit over here and listen while you try it out on your own. Carl, how about you get things started.”

After they’d talked for a few minutes, I interrupted them to ask how they felt it went, and they were quite pleased with themselves. I think this strategy worked so well because, instead of devaluing their being introverts, I tried to help them to see how they could leverage their introversion into a valuable asset. I’ll have to find a way to message Susan Cain in order to make sure I did the right thing, but it seemed to work really well for that group of students that day.

In each of the above cases, we didn’t generate solutions by doling out jobs, by threatening punishment, or by using any other accountability measure. All of the above are probably fine in some situations, but when those devices aren’t in place, will struggling students have learned enough to survive in a situation where those devices aren’t present?

Will they transfer these commitment devices? I could be wrong, but it doesn’t seem likely.  At least I haven’t seen any evidence of it.

Most importantly, I’m always looking for ways to teach students things they can use in my classroom and beyond. So, after each of the above situations, we concluded with me asking, “So, how could you use what you’ve learned in other situations?”

But, honestly, even that isn’t always enough. So, in my conference notes, I also recorded the issue, and what we tried. In both of the above cases, I followed up with both groups the next week to see if they were continuing to use what they’d learned. One group was, and the other needed a reminder. Good thing I followed up, huh?

Just like anything, learning isn’t always linear, and we don’t always magically understand something when someone explains it the first time. Following through with the follow-up is crucial.

In the end, working in a group isn’t always a breeze, even when we feel like we’ve done everything right, but I have found that collaboration tends to work better when we teach into it, rather than simply forcing students to do it.

In part III of this mini-series, we’ll shift into collaborative writing situations (this is a writing website, after all) and look into ways we can coach collaborators to think more deeply, grow bigger & better ideas, and support each other with valuable feedback.

I would love to hear about how you teach into group work. What strategies do you use to help students learn to be better collaborators? 

Please leave us a comment below, find us on Facebook, or let me know on Twitter: @MrWteach!

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