Fostering Effective Small Group Work
We all know as teachers that allowing students to work in groups is what research says is best, but HOW do we do it effectively?
In my own teaching practice, I’ve had group work that was extremely successful and beneficial to students and group work that was a waste of time. The difference? Intentionality.
Intentionality of planning. Intentionality of student partnerships. Intentionality of accountability. When we are intentional about what we have students do in small groups and how we structure the experience, students can be infinitely more successful working in groups than individually. The learning can expand to deeper levels because we are smarter together than alone.
There are many benefits to small group work. By working together, students
- are provided with a safe space to try out ideas;
- can change and refine their thinking;
- get more opportunities for feedback;
- experience increased engagement; and
- gain a better understanding of material and retain more information.
In order for all of these benefits to occur, several systems need to be in place.
One such system is a strong classroom community. Teachers can foster this by providing students time to get to know one another. At the beginning of the year, incorporate activities that encourage students to share who they are. Also, have students participate in activities that draw on the strengths of every child. There are many games or community-building activities, such as the Marshmallow Challenge and the Cup Challenge that allow students to see that they need and can learn from every person they work with.
It is important to create an intentional seating arrangement that is conducive to small-group work. This could be groups of three, four, or six (groups of four and six are easily split into two groups of two or three). If groups are larger than three, it is easy for students to disengage or hide.
Seat students facing each other in heterogeneous groups. Teach them protocols so they can interact effectively in these groups. This can be done through teacher modeling, a fish bowl, and a quick reflection after small-group work. Post the protocols so students have a visual reminder of the norms.
In addition, activities should be intentionally scaffolded so that students are individually held accountable for the work. When no accountability is present, some students won’t engage in the work. Hold students accountable by having them do individual thinking or writing before working with their group. Some protocols that work effectively are
All of these require students to think independently first and then collaborate to gain additional information or ideas.
Small-group work can be especially effective when structured right. When students work together, they talk. In their book, Content Area Conversations (2008), Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Carol Rothenberg write “Language is how we think. It’s how we process information and remember . . . As such, it seems reasonable to suggest that classrooms should be filled with talk, given that we want them to be filled with thinking!”