“Lessons for Teaching in the Environment and Community” is a regular series that explores how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.

Part 16: Effective Work Groups

When you know them, they will change your world

by Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

W2e left the last blog with a note about effective work groups. I asserted a continuum of work groups from one in which each student is answering questions without talking with other students in the group, to one in which students carried on a continuous negotiation of meaning and organization of work assignments until the job was finished.

Let’s return for a moment to the Dimensions of Inquiry to visualize scenarios in which the quality of student interactions experiences a developmental change from isolated work to effective cooperative work. Look at Figure 1, which is a depiction of the three Inquiry dimensions arrayed in a three-dimensional graph whose axes are connected to form a cube. The dimensions range from Verification to Inquiry on the X-axis, Structured to Unstructured on the Y, and Description to Experiment on the Z. Each black dot inside the cube represents an activity performed by a student or group of students. Taken together as pictured, they represent a trajectory from rote didactic to interactive constructivist learning, a plan for where a course or unit should begin and end.


Figure 1. Three-Dimensional array of the Dimensions of Inquiry. Starting at the upper left, and moving around to the right, U = Unstructured, S = Structured; V = Verification, I = Inquiry; and D = Descriptive, C = Correlation, and E = Experiment.

You can see that some activities are structured, and clustered around the Verification and Description sides of the X and Z axes. These would be teacher-centered, and didactic, and hopefully activities in which students were learning to use equipment, read technical manuals, or work like that. But, try to imagine an activity in that lower left cluster in which students were trying to determine where juvenile salmon might congregate based on measured water quality parameters. It is possible to imagine this scenario, but the picture I see is one of a very neurotic teacher controlling every aspect of the students’ thoughts and actions. Certainly not conducive to critical thinking, one of the products which should emerge from science education. Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t emerge, and we all need to learn to rectify this situation.

The most effective way I know to do it is to move my students through that cube so, instead of doing lots of ineffective small activities, such as those publishers seem to favor, they spend most of their time on a few complex activities that entrain and encourage critical thinking, involvement and investment in their education, and empowerment as persons. These outcomes are as important, at the very least, as is touching ever so briefly, mandated science benchmarks. (I had a very small part in developing science benchmarks. So, I should talk. I don’t wish to belittle benchmarks; they make wonderful organizers, but have morphed into swords, held over teachers’ heads. Unfortunate.)

Effective work groups facilitate this movement toward students who routinely use critical thinking to navigate the curricula they are assimilating. Developing effective work groups is an ongoing process in which you move from Teller of Facts to Facilitator of Minds. Students working together in groups is a dynamic phenomenon, one which can be frustrating or invigorating, depending on how you approach the process. Like raising children, you have to learn to live with a balance between freedom of decision and action, and respect for boundaries. And, like parents, you accomplish this by creating structures within which your students move.

One thing that helps is to start the school year off with students working on an interesting problem in dyads. The problem should be one in which students make some things interact, and the interaction produces interesting results. (Our primate heritage: We’re easily drawn to novelties! Piaget called them discrepant events.) For instance, they can add an indicator dye to several liquids you’ve collected, and observe for a color change. (If you’ve practiced beforehand, you’ll almost always find one thing which doesn’t produce the color change you expected. Fun. And, discrepant.)

As they work, you can make suggestions that help them work well together, but don’t tell them any answers. Their brains have to do that. Having them report their results to the class helps them to learn some valuable lessons about working together. (If you include things in this activity which will act as openers to segue into your first unit, you’ll be able to see right away the power of assimilation to involve students in their learnings.)

I start with dyads because they minimize problems of acting out, refusing to help, etc. Once students are working well in dyads, then you can merge dyads to form tetrads, groups of four, to work on larger problems. Occasionally move the memberships around. (I learned a nice trick at a workshop; Make up a blank ‘day timer’ page, with the hours from 9:00 to, say 6:00, and an underline after each hour. Have students move around, signing up students they know and don’t know. Then, when you change group memberships, ask them to get together, say, with their 4 O’clocks to form dyads. This keeps the ownership ball in their court, and also gets students to know one another the first or second day of class.)

We’re going down this road toward effective work groups for a reason. There’s a dynamic that is generated within groups of students who have experiences in working together effectively which will raise the capacity of all of your students to become very effective learners. You’ll see this emerge as you work. The person who first described this dynamic was Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, who developed the concept of a Zone of Proximal Development, which he hypothesized as a place where all students could learn a particular concept, but don’t because most students haven’t developed the capacity to identify key elements of the concept that bring everything together. Practically all students understand the components of the concept, but haven’t developed the skills to identify the key elements and bring them to bear on solving the problem.

When they work in groups, students, in a real sense, share their minds, their brains. And they are very good at recognizing and exploiting cues from the environment. As either a bright student in their group, or you, the teacher, elucidates a key integrating component, most of the students will see it. Eventually, continuing to work in this mental negotiating environment, all, or nearly all of your students will have assimilated the skill of identifying key elements, and will be working at a higher level of cognitive function. This is how you raise the performance of your bottom 25th percentile. The secret is to begin with groups who learn to negotiate meaning together, and who work well in small or large groups. That sets the stage. The hardest part for you, once you begin to notice student dynamics in groups, is having the patience to move at a pace which allows your students to develop these capacities. I always felt frustrated when I would consider that I had to wait three or four months until we did the activity which I knew would bring everything together.

If you’ve already developed effective work groups, this is probably old hat. If not, try a small piece with dyads, and observe their interactions very carefully. What are they doing and saying that moves them forward? What inhibits them? Later, work with them by starting with strengths you observed. We don’t always recognize our strengths, and begin to favor them when they’re recognized. And, we resist change when our weak areas are brought up. So, build on strengths, then ask yourself and your students how to use these strengths to shore up the weak areas. You’ll all learn valuable lessons about group dynamics from this. You know by now that you are modeling adult behavior and attitudes in your classroom. You don’t have to tell them much. What you do is like planting seeds. You may not see the plant that eventually grows, but you can rest assured that you will enhance students’ lives by modeling how to be an effective member of a group.

jimphotocroppedThis is the sixteenth installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a new, regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,  and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”