When I was in high school, and one of my teachers would ask us to form groups in order to do something, I would usually roll my eyes. Ironically enough, some of the best work that I put forth and learned from was done in a group work setting. By working with my peers towards a common end, I got things done much quicker and thorough than I ever did on my own.
I chose to research group work for this inquiry article, because in my limited experience as a teacher, youth worker, and student, group work proves to be a most effective teaching method; when it is done successfully. To begin, I came up with four questions to ask myself in researching this project:
Why is implementing group work such a useful teaching method?
How does it best foster critical literacy?
How can it work to begin to dissolve the traditional labels of student stereotypes?
How does group work best benefit the inclusion path: incorporating both gifted and special needs students?
I have only been able to better understand the answers to these questions in the light of my limited experience, student talk, and professional writings. I do plan on being able to establish more of a concrete application of my philosophy within this short intern experience.
My philosophy of group work reflects my philosophy on classroom culture. I see the best classroom environment as one that is non-hostile towards the student; doing whatever it can to clarify and to understand their ideas and problems. In a setting such as this, the student will develop a certain autonomy in discovering their own learning styles, as well as in evaluating their own work. žStudents who are authors in the English classroom are more than the writer of their own essays. TheyŪre the designers, co-creators, of the learning that goes on. And as creators, they have both freedom and responsibility for the productůthe classroom structure. But for students to become authors and creators and speakers in the classroom suggests new roles for them and for other teachersÓ (Kutz 53).
Students need to talk.
Research shows that žteacher talkÓ takes up 70-90% of class time. John S. Mayher figured out the statistics even if every students was able to talk in class; within a 45 minute period, if each member of a 30 pupil class talked for one and a half minutes a period, that would be seven and a half minutes a week. That hardly seems enough time to fairly contribute oneŪs own ideas to a class (Mayher 129). By developing their oral language abilities in the classroom, students will develop a žpotential for overall knowledge and application of and in learning in all areasÓ (Mayher 248).
The most effective way of developing oral language abilities, and getting enough time to put them in to practice is by the use of group work. žComing to know is an active process in which the learner must be engaged in acts of discovery and inquiry, and, as Vygotsky has shown, this process always takes place within a particular social/cultural context, with language internalized from and shaped by that context. Most real world learning takes place in interaction with others, but most classrooms isolate learners from that kind of interaction. The group in the classroom mirrors the way most people learn outside the classroomÓ (Kutz 258).
As Kutz says, many classrooms žisolateÓ learners from the exact form of interaction that they receive in the outside world; interaction with others. Unfortunately, it is the teachers of these classrooms that are allowing their system to isolate learners. In other cases, like that which I look back not very fondly on, teachers do not implement group work in a successful way. žMost teachers do not have a systematic approach to their grouping practices other than a pragmatic one. They recognize the importance of teaching students to work in groups, but they do not always know how to do soÓ (Knudson 85).
From what I have observed, although small groups are a great way to create a student-centered culture, they take a long time to form. One of the reasons why is because they take a long time to establish trust. I see the best way of working this out by experimenting with group sizes and people, until the majority seems comfortable. Then, the key is keeping the same groups! By remaining the same, students will hopefully become comfortable sharing with each other and will come to understand each otherŪs learning style better.
Once in groups, student talk becomes a must. The benefits of this are plentiful; each studentŪs individual creativity blossoms, and the group learns from each person. Also, more students will be more comfortable in taking risks in small groups. The level of interaction here is essential in developing critical literacy within each individual student.
I know that every student that will enter my class will already have strong views and beliefs about life. I see my job as to encourage students to examine why they think like they do. In an English class, there is tremendous opportunity for this within the curriculum. žLearning to read, write, speak and listen are essential elements of an education, especially as they are linked to critical thinkingÓ (Knudson 83). Writing activities show students how many ways there are to say one thing: the processes of editing and elimination are also useful here. By sharing their own work, students learn to give positive criticism and to be better responders.
Within a collaborative learning environment, group work provides a collaborative social environment as well. Instead of just a traditional 3-part teacher centered sequence (teacher asks question, student answers, teacher evaluates response), students are learning within a circle of ideas and evaluations (Kutz 73). For example, by reading books in groups,student reading competencies will broaden and deepen. A social process will reflect on meanings that have already been made, and problems within the text will come out more readily (Mayher 224). In the English classroom, literary works will no doubt develop literacy skills. However, by allowing the students to make a personal meaning within the text, they will relate to it and learn much better than they will in the old ž3 part sequence.Ó
žIf students are inquirers rather than responders, they discover methods as well as facts. They learn how knowledge is created because theyŪve used their imaginations to interpret the worlds around them. And learning that knowledge is created in communities, they learn that they help create the small community of the classroom itselfÓ (Mayher 253).
By encouraging students to take what they know and to incorporate it into the classroom, we are expecting them to bring their cultural, religious, and biased views in to the picture. I believe that as teachers it is important to encourage and not discourage any ideas or language expressions that stray from how we look at things. žUnless teachers begin with the language their students know, students will have nothing to connect their learning to÷Ó (Kutz 83).
Undoubtedly, group work promotes multicultural awareness. Once again, the knowledge of one person strengthens the whole. žWe are continually positioned in different ways and have the opportunity to see ourselves in different waysÓ (Evans 201). Learning in a group setting takes students into using their primary discourse in such a way that they are developing a secondary discourse in order to communicate it. Also, as students from backgrounds that are not the ždominant culturalÓ of the school or of society are around those who are, their peer to peer interaction skills will allow them to understand that discourse better as well. What we must be aware of is to be sure to make sure that there are not students who are falling silent to the dominant dialect because they believe that their ways of communicating are inferior (Mayher 70).
žTo develop empathy, students need to learn about each otherŪs lives as well as to reflect on their own. When they hear personal stories, classmates become real instead of cardboard stereotypes: rich white girl, basketball-addicted black boy, brainy AsianÓ (Christensen 53).
As students grow to understand the material of the classroom, they will better understand each other. By struggling together towards a common end, they will create a community of trust, respect, and a sense of belonging (Christensen 55).
This kind of community is essential in žbustingÓ student stereotypes. Erik Erikson, an esteemed psychologist, žbelieved that the establishment of a coherent sense of identity is the chief psychosocial crises of adolescenceÓ (Steinberg 305). I believe that most kids work for the stereotype by which they are identified. The classroom setting is prime time to žshow their stuffÓ and to publicly identify with the group that they choose to belong to more than anything else.
This is one reason why teachers should have great authority in placing groups together. There could arise several problems concerning equity with groups. If roles arenŪt assigned (at times) and the teacher is not careful, natural leaders will emerge and take over group discussion (Evans 194). In her article žCreating Spaces for Equity,Ó Karen Evans sites research which shows that high achievers are more likely to dominate group discussions, and that boys will give more information than girls will. žHow people position themselves or are positioned by others influences how their contributions will be heardÓ (Evans 201).
High achievers are often found to be classified as žjocksÓ or žteacherŪs pets,Ó both of which most probably have long term goals of college; whereas perceived žburnoutsÓ often show a resistance and lack of motivation within the classroom. Often these students and other not classified with those high žon the social networkÓ will express resistance through their dress and other behaviors in order to oppose a žjock cultureÓ (Beach 89). Situations such as this could become very likely in any group setting. Addressing issues like student stereotypes within the class may be effective in dealing with this on the spot. John Mayher gives an example of this in relating a story where a student in a low track (Frank), connects surprisingly with his teacher (Don). žFrank÷surprised Don with his thoughtful capacity to discuss the nature and effects of peer group pressures in terms of the various cliques that made up the high schoolsŪ social structureÓ (Mayher 181).
Another way to eliminate these problems is by giving each member of the group a žportion of the information of materials needed to complete the task÷for example, each student only has one piece of the puzzle or one section of the required readingÓ (Levin 43). Topics like this one are pressing on studentŪs minds, and more than likely, students will want to address them.
A topic that is very much pressing on the American educational system today is that of inclusion. žWhen we allow multiple ways of knowing and the language in which theyŪve represented into our classrooms, weŪll support the developing language and thought of all of our studentsÓ (Mayher 53). The inclusion model does not only suggest bringing students of special ed needs in to the class, but those who are labeled as gifted as well. In putting together people with differing abilities into one group, the seven different intelligences must be adhered to. In this setting, a sense of community and discussion are both musts.
For any student, having the opportunity to share their different ideas in a small group before having to žverbalize them to an entire classÓ is incredibly helpful (Knudson 85). For those who will need to present projects in self-chosen groups, practice within an assigned small group will be useful and calming.
žIf school instruction is structured to respond to a relatively narrow range of student performances÷then what seems like an appropriate school response to student differences in capacity may instead be a process of turning differences into deficienciesÓ (Mayher 59). Many special needs students will step in to the mainstream classroom as if it is a hostile environment. It is, in a sense, a responsibility of the teacher to give them social opportunities to show them how they can contribute just as well as anybody else.
The variety of activities available through group work could very well accommodate every learning style.
Teachers can also use journals of their students to understand the individual learning rates of their students, as well as to find advantages and disadvantages of their classroom culture that they may not see. Having the students take notes and elaborate on their ideas will help to remind teachers of how the students interacted. This is a very good way for the instructor to judge the effectiveness of the class discussions (Probst 45).
žLearners are, finally, responsible for their own learning. They have to set and solve the problems and develop the skills, but they will do so most effectively in an environment which takes their meanings and purposes seriously and which allows them to act as well as to reactÓ (Mayher 104).
One of my peers posed an important question in our seminar the other day: žIf classroom culture is a tool, what do I want my students to learn from it?Ó Other members of the class suggested mutual respect, security, involvement in student learning, and the studentŪs acceptance of self and others.
I want these things, too. But I think that there is a huge gap between wanting them, and actually getting the students to learn them. In a student-centered environment, they will learn these lessons on their own, every day. At the same time, the student next to them will learn the same thing, but in their own different way. By working in groups, they will be able to practically apply these lessons verbally on a regular basis.
I believe that it is the teacherŪs job to present the information and activities, and then to let their studentŪs žgo.Ó Only then will students be able to truly develop their OWN philosophies.
Beach, Richard. 1995. žConstructing Models through Response to Literature.Ó English Journal. 84:6 (October).
Christensen, Linda. 1994. žBuilding Community from Choas.Ó Rethinking Our Classrooms. Rethinking Schools, Ltd.;Milwaukee, 1994.
Evans, Karen S. 1996. žTheRole of Positioning in Peer ŮLed Literature Discussions.Ó Language Arts. 73:3. (March).
Hillebrand, Ramana P. 1994. žContol and Cohesion: Collaborative Learning and Writing.Ó English Journal. 84:1. (January)
Knudson, Ruth E. 1995. žA study of Teachers, Tracking, and Grouping: An Examination ofPactice.Ó English Journal. 84:1 (January)
Kutz, Eeanor and Hephzibah Roskelly. An Unquiet Pedagogy. Boyton/Cook Publishes; NH, 1991.
Levin, James and James Nolan. Principles of Classroom Management. Allyn and Bacon; 1996.
Mayher, John S. Uncommon Sense. Boyton/Cook Publishers; NH, 1990.
Steinberg, Laurence. Adolescence. McGraw Hill, INC.: NY, 1996.