Turn “Group Work” Into “Collaboration”

by Timothy Quinn, Phi Delta Kappan, Dec. 2012/Jan. 2013

Simply putting kids around a table and telling them to work together does not teach them collaboration skills. “Group work” as often practiced does little to enhance collaborative skills.

In the worst cases, group work is assigned when a teacher doesn’t feel like teaching. The teacher gives students some questions and instructs them to talk them over in groups. Students have a half-hearted conversation before veering off topic. This is hardly an effective way to teach collaboration.

In a good collaborative assignment, teachers must set clear expectations and devise a fair and meaningful way to assess student work. Most important, the teacher should be circulating around the room, looking over shoulders, asking and answering questions, giving feedback, and taking notes on student progress.

When giving a collaborative assignment, teachers should assume students know very little about how to work well together. Teachers should begin by  teaching effective strategies, including:

  • Listen to others;
  • Establish common goals;
  • Compromise;
  • Assign roles and responsibilities;
  • Determine measures for accountability;
  • Give constructive feedback to one another;
  • Assess the group’s progress.

At the outset, the teacher may actually want to give students an agenda to follow. For example:

  • Discuss the problem and divide up tasks (10 minutes).
  • Complete individual tasks (15 minutes).
  • Reconvene to share individual work and synthesize information (15 minutes).
  • Present solution to the rest of the class (5 minutes).

Teachers must also build in time for students to reflect on their experience working with others so they can learn from it before their next collaborative assignment. Teachers can ask students to write about successes and failures and to think about how they might do things differently next time. Students could also assess the collaborative skills of other group members so all students get feedback on how they did.

The benefits of group work come not from a project smoothly accomplished, but from learning to deal with all of the challenges posed by working with others. Collaborative assignments allow students — particularly the best students who might otherwise breeze through school having nothing but success along the way — to deal with a little adversity.

Timothy Quinn (tquinn@usmk12.org) is assistant upper school head at University School of Milwaukee (WI).

See also in ClassWise: “The Brain: Left/Right? No, Top/Bottom.”

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