Thursday, September 24, 2015

Group Gripes

     I enjoy having my students do projects. Really. I do. My students are currently immersed in a project right now. Well, some of them are. A number of students are totally engaged and then there are other members of the group doing A LOT of talking but little action. So how can we counter this and make engagement something that happens with all students? Is it even possible to get all group members fully active in the project?
     Some teachers, many teachers, shy away from projects because of management challenges. How large are the groups? What's the number of the groups? Are they too big? Too small? Do the personalities mix? Will they produce results? Do all students have to be doing something at all times?
      All of these are valid questions, deserving answers which I don't have. What I do have are observations I've made these past 20+ years of teaching. Observations that I wish I always remembered!

     One thing I've learned, at least with my students, is smaller is better when it comes to group size. If I could get by with a two-person group, I would as I think they are more conducive to higher engagement. Since there are only two people there to work on the project, they'll have more than enough to keep their hands busy and the learning active.
     Sometimes, however, a two-person group isn't feasible. Sometimes you need more people. With a larger group comes the chance that some students will have inactive moments. But just because they aren't doing a task, doesn't mean they can't contribute ideas or suggestions.
      Do I let me students choose their own groups? This usually depends upon the class dynamics. Most of the time I try to give students that option. It's rare I have to reapportion students or re-design the group.
     In the end, most students who aren't initially engaged become so during the course of this journey. They unearth facts, create artifacts, write copy and learn. Often they learn more, or at least, seem to be more vocal about their learning than their fellow classmates.
     Right now in the project my students are doing, I have a rather verbose individual. Left to his own devices, he would control not just his group, but every group with his loud exchanges and interest in everyone else's progress. To combat this, I pulled the individual aside and enlisted his help. I asked him to help draw another student into the project and make a point of listening to her suggestions, noting how everyone looked to him as the leader. When given that moniker of leader, he responded in kind. He mellowed out, focused on his group mates and worked toward inclusion. In a nutshell, it worked.
     We can only hope everything will be that easy...but it's often not. Reigning in and engaging students are two challenges of having group work. At least for me. Yet we shouldn't shy away from utilizing projects because management can be problematic. Most of the time, when immersed in projects my students claim to have learned more from that type of work than they did from studying literature or reading books by dead white guys.
      There's a place for both type of learning in school today. As teachers we can't be swayed by our gripes with groups and allow that to dissuade us from project-based learning. What about you? What have you found most challenging about utilizing groups to engage learners? Any tips?

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