Last year, I threw my students into the fire on day one of our STEM class. Instead of working up to a group project, I started the year with one. I broke the students into groups and made them work together to complete a series of tasks in early September. I didn’t explain how to work together as a group, nor had they been provided time to get to know and understand one another. Let’s just say that the project was a giant disaster. I did not set the students up for success by beginning the year with a challenging group project. Teamwork skills and strategies take time to teach and learn. This year, I got smart and waited until mid-November to begin a group project. The students know each other well, understand how to function as a group or team, and know how to be kind, compassionate, and caring by then. They also understand the value of hard work, effort, and meeting objectives. Even though the groups have only met a few times since the start of the project, I’ve already seen a huge difference compared to last year’s group project. The students are successfully delegating tasks, checking up on one another and holding each other accountable, working hard to exceed the objectives, and communicating effectively. It’s pretty awesome. Teaching students how to effectively work together as a group to complete a task is much more beneficial than just putting students into groups and expecting that they will know what to do to solve problems encountered. As a teacher, I need to always set my students up for success.
Today in Humanities class, the students worked on the Big Debate portion of our American Presidential Election Unit. The students met with their groups and revised and edited each other’s issue stance reports. Now, I didn’t just tell them to get to work and they did what was expected. I explained what they would be doing once they got into their groups. “The leader of the group will assign each student in his group a partner to peer edit with. You will then peer edit each other’s report, trying to make it better. Leaders, be sure not to pair up ESL students as their reports are plagued with grammar mistakes and they will need specific guidance in how to fix their errors.” My goal was to set my students up for success so that they knew exactly what to do and how to do it when they met with their group. I didn’t want chaos or confusion to set in. Now, I didn’t tell them how to peer edit or what to look for, as that is where the problem solving and effort comes in. They learned how to peer edit a classmate’s written work earlier in the year. They know how to do this. They also know how important helping their peers craft a brilliant report is to their success as a group. How they worked together to accomplish these two tasks was what I was interested in observing. In order to appropriately assess each student’s ability to effectively peer edit a partner’s report and work to improve his own report based on student feedback, they need to be able to get right to work by understanding what to do and how to do it. I’m not taking away problem solving opportunities by modelling the process of meeting with a group and assigning tasks, I’m helping the students be and feel successful. Sometimes, more details and a specific explanation are needed to allow the students to work effectively in class.
Setting students up for success isn’t about taking away learning opportunities, but instead is about empowering students to own their work and learning process. If students are bogged down by the minute details because no one in the group assigned partners and so they spent half of the class period being unproductive, then very little learning and practice takes place. I’m all about maximizing time for my students as our academic day is already so short. Helping students to feel as if they know and understand what is being asked of them is one of my goals as a teacher. Of course, there is a fine line between setting students up for success and spoon-feeding them everything. I certainly don’t want to steal their creativity or pigeonhole them into using one strategy or method to solve a problem. I want them to struggle to complete the task, but not to get started working on it. Had I told the students how to peer edit their partner’s issue stace report today in class, I would have not received the outcome I did. The boys were communicating with each other effectively, asking insightful questions, and helping each other better their writing and reports. It was amazing. They were like tiny little teachers. Some of them even utilized phrases and strategies my co-teacher and I use when conferencing with the students. “I wonder if this is the best way to say this.” So cool. Success comes in many forms and is different for each student, but laying the foundation for success almost always uses the same blueprint: Be specific, explain how to start working, and briefly discuss what to do.