I already do a lot of team projects and I like them. They can be a great way to get kids to work together and, when the groupings are right, students can get some good learning accomplished. However sometimes I feel exhausted after a teamwork challenge and I wonder who is really doing all the work. As I monitor and re-direct students and groups, I see the usual problems: the Wanderer, the No-Worker, the Distracter, the Soloist, the Non-Listener, etc...The saving grace is always the one group who functions well together and reminds me that there is a good reason for team projects and that they CAN work.
After reading the article, I could see some flaws with my current system and I came up with some new strategies to try. I had an opportunity to try out my new plan on Friday as we did group work in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Here are some things I learned:
Let students make mistakes. Sometimes I intervene too quickly as students are working. I need to let them try out different ideas and determine for themselves the best way to solve problems. When I step back and wait, I find that they are fully capable of making good decisions.
Allow the end project to reflect its designers, not the teacher. As a perfectionist, it can be hard for me to let go of the idea that projects should look like what I would do. As long as the work fulfills the project requirements, the design should be up to the creators. Guidance and suggestions can be helpful, but students should be the ones to decide how their project looks.
Encourage the group to set up and reinforce the norms. As students came up to me complaining about their peers, I put the question back on them: What are you going to do to get that person to work? At first those kids were uncomfortable with the notion of holding their friends accountable. However as I watched the interactions, the ones who complained to me used different strategies to convince their friends to cooperate and, in many cases, it worked! I was then able to reinforce that student by complimenting the group or restating the goals of the project.
Give frequent and specific positive feedback. Instead of focusing on the negative behaviors of a few students, I spent my time praising groups for their awesome teamwork and reinforcing the behaviors I wanted to see during group projects. I complimented students on negotiating, problem solving, encouraging and helping one another, using respectful language, working as a team, completing the work, etc. The funny thing was--the groups who were already doing a nice job were even more motivated to earn compliments and they continued to work well together. The groups who were not on task quickly repositioned themselves so that I would notice those positive behaviors in them too.
The most important thing I realized on Friday, after observing my class come together in a positive and collaborative way, was that I have to trust my students. I have to trust that the behaviors I work so hard to teach them on daily basis WILL be used when needed. If I never give my students an opportunity to practice these skills, how will I (or they) know that they have really learned them? By providing safe and structured experiences for students to practice their collaborative skills, they are being prepared for the future. And isn't that what the teacher's job is all about?
Share your thoughts on collaboration in the classroom!!