Conventional wisdom among teachers agrees with the research: Student collaboration is essential to learning. As teachers, we have our students work together in class all the time. We know that collaboration requires cooperation and helps students build their interpersonal and social-emotional skills. When students collaborate, they don't merely learn facts in a vacuum; social learning helps them build a more meaningful understanding of the world. Collaboration is one of the 4Cs. It's a 21st-century skill that prepares kids for the future.
But, if you talk to any teacher (or student) about group work ... well, that's a different conversation. Of course, as teaching practices go, group work is nearly universal: We all do it. It's one of the most common ways we have students collaborate. But the reality is that group work tends to be complicated and messy, and it never quite works out as well as we, or our students, would like.
If we really want to promote and model healthy, functional collaboration, it's worth taking a second look at how we assign group work.
So, what actually happens when we assign group work? Consider whether you've seen anything like this play out: A few students feel like they're doing most of the work. Others feel left out. Motivation wanes. Assignments get cobbled together at the last minute. Nobody feels like they have real ownership over the work.
Or, worse yet: Nobody feels a strong sense of ownership over the learning.
Of course, collaborative group work is complex and messy by nature -- it's supposed to be that way! Working through that complexity -- and working it out together -- is part of what we want students to experience. But how messy should we let it be? If we really want to promote and model healthy, functional collaboration, it's worth taking a second look at how we assign group work. Could group work be less painful for students? Probably. Could we make group work even more collaborative? I think we can, and the key is digging into the issue of ownership.
Practical Tips for Planning Group Work
Are you designing an activity, lesson, or unit that involves collaborative group work? Here are a few ideas to consider:
1. Does this assignment actually need to involve group work?
Can the tasks be broken down into meaningful, equitable parts? Before anything else, decide exactly what you want students to learn and make sure it's actually suited to group collaboration. If the work doesn't break down easily (and equitably), maybe it's worth considering a different route.
2. Break down the work for students ahead of time.
Effective group work takes a lot of scaffolding. Don't expect students to automatically know how to divvy up the work on their own. Collaboratively deciding how to break down work and then delegating those responsibilities among members is one of the most challenging tasks for any group -- even for adults! So help your students out and break down the work for them. Over time, consider eventually transferring some of this responsibility back to them. But it's important to model it for them first.
Make sure the distribution of work -- what each student's roles and responsibilities will be -- is very clear to everyone. Do your best to create tasks that are interdependent: those that require kids to work both independently and together. Of course, organizing and communicating all this can be tricky, but using a digital tool can be a big help.
3. Give students a framework to understand their responsibilities.
Traditional group work roles (think: "timekeeper" or "note-taker") tend to be administrative. They're well-intentioned and might help some aspects of group discussion, but they don't (usually) serve our learning goals directly. In general, these roles tend to fall short of supporting true collaboration.
Instead, what if we structured group work roles differently? When students share ownership of what they're learning, everyone should have multiple roles to play and be dependent upon one another. For meaningful collaboration, students should have three things: 1) a task to own, 2) a role in supporting a peer, and 3) the responsibility to assess both themselves and someone else in their group.
Use these printable group work role cards to try out this framework in your classroom!
More Resources for Group Work
For more support planning meaningful group work experiences for your students, check out these helpful resources: