How To Manage Well-Behaved, On-Task Group Work
If you’re currently struggling to manage group work, it’s already too late.
You’ve missed the boat.
There is nothing you can do to fix it unless you’re willing to go back to the beginning. No, I don’t mean to reteach it.
I mean to do it right for the first time.
You see, most teachers make the mistake of teaching group work in one fell swoop. They also teach it as mere information. “So this is what you’re gonna do.”
This will almost never work, regardless of grade level.
To have well-behaved, on-task groups—so you can work with your own small group if you wish without interruption—it must be taught in three stages.
In stage one you’ll set your expectations. Your students must know precisely what exceptional group work looks and feels like.
How do they meet? What is your signal to begin? How do they start? What do they talk about? How should it sound? How do they know if they’re on the right track? What happens if someone strays off topic? What is and isn’t okay?
You must have a clear vision for what you want. This is key. You can have it anyway you want as long as you know what that is. Otherwise, it will never happen.
Sit and think and create the perfect groups in your mind’s eye and watch them work as if it’s a movie. Consider every element. Run through the visualization several times or more until you’re satisfied.
Once your mind is set and your ready to teach it to your class, it must be modeled.
Have your students circle around you and a few volunteers and show them what you want and what you don’t want. Demonstrate your expectations. Break it into simple steps and provide a handout or steps on an easel to follow.
Take questions, discuss, elaborate, clarify. Mix new volunteers in and out so each student can experience your vision. Continue until you’re confident they know it and can do it.
Then have them prove it by practicing. Give them a short, dummy topic or project to accomplish while you look on. Stop them often to sharpen and give feedback.
During this stage, you’re going to ensure your students can perform group work perfectly under your attentive observation. Keep practicing and honing their skills over time.
As they get better, slowly introduce actual curricular topics and extend the length of each session to the time you want.
Continue to observe and offer your assessment. Praise to show they’re meeting your expectations and correct missteps. Make them show they’re ready for more challenge and then give it to them.
This may take a week or two or more. Proceed day after day while pulling back and allowing your students to take over more and more responsibility.
Recede into the background and let them mature and grow and succeed all on their own. Allow them to enjoy the feeling of getting lost in discussion and performing well. Once you have nothing left to say, watch a few more days.
Wait until undeniable proof that they’ve got it before moving to stage three.
Stage three is when you’ll begin to work with your own small group if you wish. Here at SCM, we’re not fans of how most teachers run these groups. (We’re also dubious of their value altogether, but will cover this topic on another day.)
If you do meet with your own group, it should be an opportunity for you to watch at a closer, deeper level, not for you to lead the group and absolve your students of responsibility.
This, and poorly taught group work, is the reason many students don’t buy-in. It’s why they daydream and respond monosyllabically, if at all.
It’s why you’re working so hard and they goof off without a care in the world. It’s why your small group sits bored and unwilling while the rest of the class is bouncing off the walls.
When I observe teachers, I see this over and over in classroom after classroom. It’s brutal—both for the teacher and the students who learn next to nothing.
To flip the script you must teach exceptionally well and then begin handing more and more over to your students until they’re able to take it all.
Teaching in stages is not only how you create effective small group work that students actually enjoy and benefit from, but it’s also how you avoid silliness and off-task behavior.
Vigilant supervision is important, of course, as is following through with your classroom management plan.
But the real strength of the strategy is the preparation you do ahead of time.
You must teach what impeccable group work looks like until your vision manifests in front of you, like a scene from a movie you’ve watched over and over.
Good teaching is about pursuing excellence. It’s about leading students from A to Z on a line to mastery, and not stopping until they get there.
Having peaceful, productive groups that work together is doable for any teacher, no matter who you are, where you work, or who is on your roster.
But you have to know what you want, teach it to exacting standards, and then gradually shift responsibility in full over to your students.
That’s how it’s done.
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