The teacher announces a group project; the class audibly groans and eye-rolling reaches new heights. How does a teacher avoid this response? What does effective group work look like in intermediate / senior classrooms?
"Talk helps all learners articulate their thinking. Small groups also give more students a chance to participate in a way that they wouldn't do in large groups." - Chris Tovani, p. 98In her book, Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension Grades 6-12, Chris Tovani provides excellent examples of students at work in groups, sharing their thinking, discussing rich texts, collaborating on meaning, asking questions when they have trouble, and generally helping each other problem-solve the text. First, she addresses past poor experiences, asking her students to help define what doesn't work in group work. Next, she models (using the fishbowl strategy) what group work looks like (including the negative behaviours they identified) and discusses how to problem-solve for times when people are off task or conversation stalls. Interestingly, she doesn't abdicate all group responsibility to the students; the teacher's task is to provide timely feedback, which she does in the form of plus/minus notes, quoting students directly to indicate situations and thinking that moved the group forward versus behaviours or thinking that stalled the group. And, of course, all of this is powered by providing students with rich, authentic, meaningful texts. Students are provided strategies like using post-its to record their thinking, make connections and share their findings.
I have experienced the classroom with both functioning and non-functioning groups and it's clear what makes the difference: the teacher's expectations of the group. If the teacher takes the time to appropriately group students (based on needs, interests, skills - any number of variables), explore behaviours that help and hinder group work, and generally agree to some norms, then group work has a shot at working. The best tools I have discovered recently are protocols (like those from the National School Reform Faculty of the Harmony Education Center), which basically are strategies for discussion; they are timed, inclusive, well-designed group discussion strategies which promote deep thinking and meaningful conversation. I have been using them predominantly with adult learners recently (teachers), in an effort to model effective group work strategies. Protocols help minimize negative behaviours - such as one person monopolizing the conversation - while focusing the group on the task at hand. Also, as Tovani points out, it's important to provide feedback while groups are working; they need specific examples of positive work behaviours and thinking as well as problem-solving strategies when faced with barriers to conversation.
Tovani's book is widely read because it's well articulated, well organized, and well researched. Her use of real-life examples to start each section is book-ended by a summary which collects key info for readers. Throughout, the text boxes provide great prompts, focus questions, and exemplars to aid understanding. I would recommend this book to colleagues or to a reader who is especially interested in strategy-based instruction in reading. When the text does focus on assessment, the focus is well placed on assessment for learning as opposed to assessment of learning.
Reference: Tovani, Chris (2004) Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension Grades 6-12. Markham: Pembroke. pp 89-116.