Thinking back on my numerous years of schooling, I don’t recall ever having more than one or two group projects. My teachers veered away from group work. I think that they were afraid of what might happen when three to five students get together to accomplish a task. Perhaps chaos would ensue. Or maybe it was because they didn’t really know how to teach effective collaboration and teamwork. Teachers can’t just assign group projects without some sort of scaffolding or guidance regarding how to work together as a team. It would be like giving a group of 24 students a rugby ball and saying, “Now go play rugby.” They would probably have no idea what to do. Plus, rugby can be a very dangerous sport if you don’t know how to play it safely. Teachers need to guide students through group projects. But, how? How do you effectively teach teamwork? That is the big question.
Today in STEM class, the students worked on the Synthesis Group Project portion of our Astronomy Unit. Despite explaining how to effectively coexist in a group, some of the students still struggled in class. They’ve been learning and practicing teamwork strategies for the past several weeks in Leadership and PEAKS classes. We’ve also discussed effective collaboration skills in STEM class. So, what’s the problem? Why are some students struggling to figure out how to work together effectively? Working in a group is difficult and challenging. It requires compromise, a growth mindset, patience, delegation, leadership, listening skills, and so much more. These aren’t skills that develop over night. These skills and techniques need to be practiced again and again. Teaching students how to utilize a growth mindset once in class doesn’t mean they’ve mastered the skill. They need constant remodeling and reminders.
During class today, one group worked effectively and accomplished the assigned work quite well. But even that group struggled a bit. Not every team member was actively participating. Two groups really struggled in class today. One of those groups had much internal strife. We’ll call that group, Group B. Two members of Group B stuck together and argued with the third group member. They refused to compromise and argued about their roles and duties. The leader was the main culprit in all of this turmoil. Group C began the work period on a strong note, but then started to fall apart when the leader delegated work to the other two members. Those two members were lethargic and uncooperative. They accomplished very little during class. This upset the leader a lot. He then started complaining and arguing with his other group members.
Replaying the double block in my head, things were a bit crazy in class today. However, this is all part of the process. It was time for the groups to start having problems. No group is perfect. Issues and problems will arise. It’s what the group members do when those problems arise that will make all the difference. How do they react to their peers? How do they communicate their emotions and concerns? Does the leader facilitate or add fuel to the fire? During all of this, I roamed around and asked each of the groups some probing questions. I didn’t tell them what to do to solve their problems, but I wanted them to think about alternative solutions to the problems they faced.
Yelling and arguing was getting Group B nowhere. So clearly, they needed some guidance. I gave the leader some instructions as to what his role should look like and things improved over the course of the class. By the end of the period, they were sitting near each other and collaborating effectively. They just needed some support and help. Odds are that they would not have been able to troubleshoot things on their own.
Group C had social issues that needed to be addressed after class. One of the unproductive students needed to be told how to effectively communicate with his peers. Instead of using his words, he just didn’t do anything. That one student realized the error of his ways and will hopefully be able to change his behavior next time.
While I didn’t step in and solve every issue that arose in every group, I did need to guide them to the light a bit with questions and suggestions. The students need to be reminded again and again how to work together in order to learn how to do so. While they do need to figure out how to solve their own problems, the boys are only in sixth grade and so some problems are out of their sphere of understanding, which is why I stepped in when I did. During other times, I let them figure things out on their own. Critical thinking is a crucial habit of learning that students need to practice applying.
Another key to helping students learn to effectively coexist is reflection. The students need a chance to reflect on their actions and behaviors. So, prior to the end of class, I took a few minutes to have students self-assess their ability to coexist and create a goal for the next group project work day. This provided the students with the opportunity to think about what went well and the struggles they faced and how to solve some of these problems next time. What did they learn today? Then, I had conversations with each of the students regarding their reflection. Most of the boys were very honest and self-aware. They know what they need to do to improve and be more productive and effective group members.
Teamwork is not a skill that can be introduced once and then assessed. It needs to be practiced again and again in a supportive environment. Teaching effective coexistence isn’t easy and requires perseverance, but when done well, will forever help the students become responsible global citizens.