How to Develop Group Work Skills

Posted: September 16, 2013 in Education
Tags: , , ,

There is no doubt that the ability to work in a group is a highly valuable skill that will be called upon in later life. How then do we best prepare students for this in a post school environment?

This idea was piqued recently with the intersection of two events. The first was a series of workshops looking at Visible Thinking, stemming out of Harvard’s Project Zero. Put simply, how do teachers know that content covered in class has been absorbed by students. The old concept of a teacher delivering a chalk-and-talk-class where you could hear the proverbial pin drop is a good example. While the content may have been covered and the teacher feels it all went well, how much has been taken in my students?

Photo by Susan Sermoneta

Photo by Susan Sermoneta

The second event was the marking of a Reflection assessment by Year 8 students of a group task that culminated in a class performance of a scene from a play. Having marked a similar task, a year earlier, the similarities in the responses were striking, despite the year’s gap between the two tasks.  The content covered was dynamically different – from a contemporary play in Year 7 to an excerpt from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and this was reflected in the different ideas about the text and how to approach the task. However, the accounts of the processes of working in the groups were quite similar. This led to the thought; why not look to develop a hierarchy of group skills?

Students are put in groups from a young age. Socially, they seek out friendships from the first days of schooling, if not beforehand. The idea that you will be put into a group of or get yourselves into groups of X is commonplace. From here teachers often ask how the process is going, based on the task at hand of the shared goal or goals that the group has. Individuals may well be asked to reflect on how it felt working in a group, including what barriers were faced (individually or as a group), approaches that were used in an attempt to overcome the barrier, as well as how one felt about the experience looking back on the task.

But what is done about group skills beyond this? I have worked with students on Outward Bound courses where Bruce Tuckman‘s Stages of Group Development was in play. Here teams will go through a series of steps (Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing) as they work through a shared task. At the time, this approach seemed novel to the students, who often found amusement in being ‘stuck’ in the Storming stage as they vented their exasperation to the wild when a tent stubbornly refused to be assembled in the face of driving rain.

As an initial response this post seeks to posit this idea as a precursor to future discussion. Group skills are envisioned in a similar light to Tuckman’s work. This would see an element in group work where students are able to directly develop group skills and look to reflect on the process. Then, a critique of a variety of group approaches could be considered as part of a learning tool. The aim of a future post will be to explore and promote some group skill possibilities, along with ways of assessing their use. In the meantime, suggestions or experiences that have worked in the classroom are most welcome.

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