Mastering the Art of Classroom Group Work: Fostering Critical 21st-Century Skills
After sharing that I needed to reteach a small group of students, my teammate said, “I was thinking about doing small group rotations for Tuesday’s Reading lesson”. It was then that I realized that I had been so focused on flipping through our curriculum resources and lesson plans while teaching, that apart from checking work or doing worksheets together, I neglected using small groups during Reading for the first two months of school. Reading, of all things. It was the very first subject I used group work for when I was student teaching!
Since that conversation, we now include reading group work in our lesson plans, and it has been such a blessing to the students and me. Since this conversation, I’ve also reflected on the importance of group work in all subjects. In today’s post, I’d like to share some of those reflections with you.
Benefits of Group Work:
Group work goes beyond the traditional lecture-style teaching and encourages students to actively engage with the learning material and with each other.
Emphasizing collaboration sparks a dynamic exchange of ideas, enabling students to explore diverse perspectives and harness their collective intelligence. Group work cultivates essential skills like critical thinking, communication, and conflict resolution. It also prompts students to access information from sources beyond the teacher, playing a pivotal role in cultivating an inclusive classroom community and student independence.
Challenges and Strategies:
Potential challenges include unequal participation and conflicts. Teachers play a crucial role in guiding students through effective group dynamics, setting clear expectations, and providing support when needed.
Assigning roles to group members is a strategic approach to fostering independence and accountability. Mini lessons dedicated to each role—such as speaker, listener, summarizer, and questioner—allow students to acquire essential skills one step at a time. You could also introduce your students to Marzano’s “Six Thinking Hats,” which has students bring a different perspective to the group. The goal is for all students to possess a comprehensive skill set, enabling them to adapt seamlessly to different roles in another educational or work environment.
Group Dynamics and Stages:
Understanding “Tuckman’s Stages” of group development—forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning—is helpful in managing group work effectively. Teachers play a vital role in setting students up for success through each stage, guiding students toward collaboration, effective communication, and shared responsibility.
Interrupting groups for check-ins can disrupt the natural flow of student collaboration. Instead, teachers should listen and observe from a short distance to gain valuable insights into group dynamics and progress without hindering the students’ work.
When you, the teacher, meet with a small group, maintain a conducive learning atmosphere by establishing clear boundaries. Introduce a “3 before me” rule, encouraging students to seek help from peers before approaching you, or consider having a visual cue, like a crown, to remind students not to interrupt your group. You could also utilize visual cues such as a “Help Me” card, providing a non-disruptive way for students to seek assistance. Assign a helper to monitor the room and help those with their cards out when you’re working with a group.
Consider using a certain procedure for group work so students know the process of what to do as you work with another group. You can use a rotation schedule or use a process such as “Design Thinking,” and “Creative Problem Solving” have established.
If it seems too chaotic to have multiple groups around the classroom in addition to your group, have students work on independent work while you work with a small group. For a more successful uninterrupted time, limit independent work intervals to no more than 5 minutes initially, gradually scaling up endurance.
Just as we teachers encourage students to be problem-solvers, we should be too. We can model this during group work. Teachers should avoid expecting a one-size-fits-all strategy to last the entire academic year. Visual reminders such as countdown timers and to-do lists create a structured and focused working environment. If one method doesn’t work for your class, try another!
Providing feedback is crucial in group work, encompassing social skills, the process, the product, and content mastery. Consider giving Post-it Note feedback or using rubrics for grading group work. Grading group projects may not accurately reflect individual student understanding. If you need to ensure accurate data on each student’s proficiency in the targeted standards, follow up group work with individual reflections or assessments.
When implemented thoughtfully, group work becomes a cornerstone for developing essential skills in students. By emphasizing critical thinking and adaptability, teachers prepare students not only for academic success but also for the collaborative challenges they will encounter beyond the classroom. The journey toward mastering group work requires a blend of strategic planning, flexibility, and a commitment to nurturing diverse skills that will empower students for success in the 21st century.