New Unit, New Groups

I’ve already talked about how it takes me forever to put together groups for my classes. And this time, it’s particularly hard, because I think I’ve found reasonably functional groups for most students for this past unit (there are, of course, the one or two groups in every class that are desperately ready for a change). How do I switch the groups up so that they are equally or more functional than before? How do I scaffold student interactions to help them rather than stifle them?

It’s interesting because NYTimes Magazine recently published an article about what Google found about productive teams. And long story short, it seems to come down to two things: 1) team members speak in roughly the same proportions (either everyone speaking on all tasks, or leadership shifting from task to task) and 2) team members have good “social sensitivity” where they can tell how others are feeling based on nonverbal cues.

My 3-min observation club also had a discussion around this. One of our members admitted that, when grouping students, she doesn’t consider academic ability as much as she considers how well personalities will work together. Her goal is to make her students feel comfortable working in their groups (and she wonders if it’s something she emphasizes too much- is she emphasizing social comfort to the point where it is detrimental to learning?) and ends up with mostly heterogenous ability groups. Another member said he found groups with similar abilities worked better, because the high academic status students were able to push each other more and the lower academic students were comfortable asking questions of one another (and he could spend more time working with those groups). In either case, I think the end result is the same- groups where students feel comfortable talking to one another.

This weekend, I’m at Spring Meeting with the 2012 Cohort of Teaching Fellows with KSTF. And I love this community because they push me in my thinking. One of the things that came up was the idea of lecture vs. groupwork. So many of us believe in groupwork, in student-led classrooms and student-led discussions. But one person asked- why? Why do we believe so strongly in these ideas, even if our groups and student-centered activities seem to fail? I still believe that generally, active learning/groupwork/student-centered learning is more effective than lecture (and I’m pretty sure that there’s research to back this up). But is a well-designed lecture more effective than a poorly designed/dysfunctional group? And that leads me back to what started this post- what makes a group functional?

I’m starting to think more about the social/emotional aspects of my groups more explicitly. It’s always been an implicit consideration- these two students are friends, does that mean they’ll work together well or distract each other? This student is quiet but has good ideas, will seating her with this other student draw her out or shut her down? Another student is great at drawing out the others that she’s seated with- how can I leverage that?

I wonder also if I can leverage some of the ideas from the NYTimes Mag article in my classes. Should I be explicit that groups can be more functional when everyone talks equally, and institute structures that facilitate that? (Does ‘forced’ equal air-time also work?) How can I teach my students to be more aware of non-verbal cues, when they’re 15-16 years old and often more concerned about how others view them than how others might be feeling in that moment?

I have a pile of tests to grade and new seating charts to make on Sunday afternoon, so it’s going to be a long weekend still. But I’m still thankful for a weekend to think more deeply about teaching and learning, and hopefully the end result is a better learning experience for my students.

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