Yes, group work is here to stay. I know, students dread it, and I suspect that most teachers do too. Having worked with seventh graders for many years, I can solemnly say that for each group assignment, there will be a group problem.
Happily, I just finished some research about teamwork and it turns out that conflict is part of the collaborative process! (Haycock, 2007). The problem, it seems, is that people tend to be so uncomfortable with conflict that they don’t deal with it head on. Instead, the group flounders.
Now, I can see how this may work with professionals in the business world, but what about with seventh graders? Often, their idea of how to handle conflict strays markedly from what I would like them to do. But, here’s the key: Let’s teach the students what to do. Let’s teach them what research says about work in groups and help them know what to expect. I bet when students, even young teens, have some strategies for how to work in teams, they will surprise us.
I’ll admit that in the past, I haven’t done as much pre-teaching for group work as I could have. Of course, problems inevitably surface. Based on what I’ve read about working in teams, I have been skipping a few essential steps. So, now my plan is to blog these steps here on this page in the hopes that I won’t be so quick to skip them in the future. Most of the information comes directly from San Jose State University’s Dr. Ken Haycock (2007) and his lecture on working in teams for the MLIS program.
Steps for Student Teams = Form, Norm, Storm, and Perform
- Student or Teacher Choice? It turns out that when people are allowed to choose their own teams, they often make the choices based on friendship, not skillset, personality, or interest. This does not, in fact, lead to productive teams. Therefore, teacher-chosen or topic-driven teams are probably the best choice for most classrooms.
- Group Responsibility and Individual Accountability: Student teams should have a group goal or product which actually requires team work, so we don’t end up with individuals working separately and meeting once in awhile. Adults know when that happens and they disengage with the group process. Students will too. An added component is having students evaluate their own participation in the group. That self-evaluation can be turned in at the end of the process, assuring that individual students know they are being held accountable for equal participation within the group.
- Agree on Ground Rules: When will groups meet? How will they make sure everyone is prepared? How will they handle conflicts or disagreements? What outcomes are expected (e.g., an A grade or is a B- good enough)? If there is work to be done outside of class, how will members communicate? What technological tools can facilitate the process?
- Choose Roles: The roles will depend on the assignment, but teams work better when everyone knows what to do. Who is the leader? Who keeps track of time? Who will be in charge of final editing, formatting, or publishing? Is art work needed? Research? Teachers can outline the roles or allow students to set them based on the assignment.
- Storming at the Teacher, at the Assignment, at the Process: I am not one to encourage strife, but research shows that teams almost invariably experience a “storming” period before they are able to perform successfully. Maybe if teachers allow and accept this (and tell students to expect it) we can all “weather” (I can’t resist the pun) the experience. I am imagining myself saying something like, “Working in groups can be tough. I know it. I’ve experienced it. Expect that you will go through a period of grumbling and complaining. It is part of the process.”
- Open Communication and Conflict: You can’t collaborate without conflict. People simply don’t agree on everything all the time. Here’s a good rule of thumb for students: If there is a problem within the group, bring it up to the group during the meeting time. Don’t talk behind members’ backs. Let’s tell students to try to work together “like scholars.” A sentence stem may help: “I see your point. However, I see it a different way…” or “Another way to think about this is…” Finally, let’s help students recognize the kinds of problems they can solve themselves and the kinds of problems which may require teacher intervention. I bet having a brief class discussion on the topic would clarify the difference.
Presto! We arrive at…Performing!
According to Dr. Ken Haycock (2007), some groups never function at the performing level. They turn in their final assignment still grumbling or “storming.” They may have finished, but they never arrived at the optimal level for group effectiveness. In a performing group, each members knows what to do, how to communicate with the team, how to resolve conflicts, and most importantly, team members trust each other. This is a pretty high bar to clear, particularly in the short term for a classroom assignment. However, don’t we owe it to students to give them the tools to help them get there? Like I said in the beginning, group work is not going away—in the schools or in the work place. Let’s do what we can to help our students acquire this very necessary skill.
Haycock, K. (2007). Working in teams [Web]. Retrieved from http://amazon.sjsu.edu/libr203/haycockTeams.html
Bergiel, B. J., Bergiel, E. B., & Balsmeier, P. W. (2008, 12). Nature of virtual teams: A summary of their advantages and disadvantages. Management Research News, 31(2), 99-110. doi: 10.1108/01409170810846821
Evans, G.E., & Alire, C.A. (2013). Management basics for information professionals (3rd ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman.