“Teachers in traditional classrooms, when they are not lecturing, spend the bulk of their time guiding the students through various tasks. They show and tell how to do the assignments. They redirect students who appear to be disengaged from their work. They answer many questions that come from individual students. This kind of direct supervision will undermine the management system you have worked so hard to develop. If you are available to solve all the problems, students will not rely on themselves or on their group.” (Cohen, 1994)
Note: This topic has been written about many times, so this is pretty much just me putting my thoughts together in one place.
In order for groupwork to be effective, students must learn to work together with limited supervision. This can only happen if there IS limited supervision.
I’m improving with this concept, but I’ve struggled a lot in the past. I want to jump in when I first see any issues. I want to help group direction. A lot of this has to do with my fear of students giving up or getting off task. However, I’ve learned that students will give up and get off task if I step in every time trouble occurs. Students are trained throughout their schooling that teachers will come over and help whenever any confusion occurs. Therefore, they learn to sit and wait until the teacher comes over to the rescue. There is no reason to struggle or persevere because the teacher will always be there.
The “No Hovering Rule” counters this mindset by teaching students to rely on each other for help. They have to be their own resources. Similarly, it’s important not to answer all student questions because this too reinforces the behavior of waiting on the teacher to save the day.
A good way I’ve found to accomplish this is to assign a specific group member to be the question asker for the group. I really like Elizabeth Statmore’s group roles for this purpose. One of the roles she created is the “Resource Manager.” This student gathers and cleans up all the materials for the group. In addition, he or she is responsible for “organizing a group question” to ask the teacher. If the group gets stuck and everyone has been asked for a solution, then the resource manager can call the teacher over and ask a question. However, he or she is the only person who can ask the teacher a question.
I really like this because it provides a big responsibility for the resource manager (someone who might think their work is done once the materials are gathered) and helps keep everyone involved. Many times, I’ll go to answer a question in the group, but the resource manager has no idea what it is. When I tell the group to get the resource manager to ask, then they are forced to catch everyone up in order for me to answer. Most of the time, through this process, the students figure out a solution to the original question, and I’m no longer needed.
The Right Answer:
In the past, I think one of the reasons I wanted to help at any sign of trouble was because I wanted the group to be “successful.” By successful, I meant “get the right answer.” However, I now realize that the goal of groupwork should not be for everyone to get the right answer. Actually, the goal might be the wrong answer because the wrong answer leads to teaching moments.
Now, my goal for groupwork is for students to learn to work together effectively, share and debate ideas, and come to a group conclusion. This process leads to the type of learning we desire. Also, I’ve found that many times the groups end up achieving a reasonable solution when they lean on each other so the initial worry was unfounded.
Times to Step In:
“Although groups should be allowed to make mistakes for themselves, there are times when nothing is to be gained from letting a group struggle onward:
- When the group is hopelessly off-task
- When the group does not seem to understand enough to get started or to carry out the task
- When the group is experiencing sharp interpersonal conflict
- When the group is falling apart because they cannot organize themselves to get the task done.” (Cohen, 1994)
There are definitely times where the teacher needs to step in to help even if the group doesn’t have a question. Sometimes, through random assignments, groups end up not having enough resources to get started. Other times, a combination of students needs support in working together effectively. The key in these situations is for the teacher to provide support without completely taking over. It is important to always attempt to get the kids back to their own resources.
Cohen provides some example teacher moves:
- Remind them of the rules and roles. Ask whether people are playing their roles. Suggest the facilitator and navigator make a list of prioritized next steps. Tell them you will come back to hear the results.
- Ask a few open-ended questions to redirect the discussion.
- Ask the group to briefly stop and talk over how they are doing with group norms. Ask them to tell you their conclusions and what they think they should do about it.
- Point out some key points. Maybe fill in some missing knowledge. You aren’t doing the task for them or directing them how to do it. You are just getting them to a point where they can continue on with their own resources. (Cohen, 1994)
“In none of these examples are you using direct supervision. Instead, you are using the system of roles and norms to make the groups operate. You are forcing the group back upon its own resources – to take more responsibility for its own learning and functioning.” (Cohen, 1994)
Focusing on taking a step back and not hovering has been helpful so far. The students are starting to learn that I won’t help unless the whole group has been consulted, and this has led to better collaboration. It has also led to a less stressful experience. Now, I don’t have to worry about focusing so hard on each student’s behavior. Instead, I’m able to move around the room more (which helps reduce behavior issues) and help promote higher level thinking through questioning.
Some classes have expressed frustration with this strategy though. One class in particular has students who shut down when I don’t answer their questions. I’m trying to figure out the best way to get these students to understand the reasoning behind my actions (I’d be happy to get some feedback on this). However, despite frustration, I still believe over time the issues will be minimized, and students will be better off because of the experience. Most of my students have participated in very little groupwork situations throughout their lives. Therefore, it is a big adjustment for some. Over time, as I continue to train them how to work in groups, I believe the benefits will outweigh the struggles.
Cohen, E.G. (1994). Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press