Friday, August 1, 2014

Tackling Group Work - Part 1

Another thing that I want to incorporate into my classroom this year is more structured partner (and eventually 3- or 4-person group) work. This is because I strongly believe that when people talk about their ideas, they push each other and themselves to clarify, develop, question, integrate, and add to ideas in ways that no one person could do alone. Collaboration also reinforces the idea that I, as the teacher, am not the only source of knowledge in the room, instead it builds a belief in classmates and in self.

In the past, I have simply told students that they are welcome to work with a partner during most work time in class. As a result, some students would seek out other students for help when they got stuck and others would work independently. When we were working on a longer problem for the whole period, I would often be more direct in my instructions. I would have students take a couple minutes of PTT and then ask students to share with a partner what they had done so far. Students would then write brief notes on the similarities and differences in each other's work. After that, I would instruct them to work together to solve the problem. This was slightly more successful, but often ended up with one student doing the majority of the thinking and the other student copying down their partner's work.

To support my students to fully take advantage of everything that partner/group work has to offer, I've decided to do two things: structure partner/group work and explicitly teach it. To help me with this goal, I did some reading about exploratory talk, complex instruction, and accountable talk.

Before I get into the specifics of what group work will look like and how I will teach and support it, it was important to me to figure out what I valued and wanted to promote in group work. Maybe I will primarily re-inforce these values implicitly, maybe I will teach them explicitly, and/or maybe I will guide my students in creating their own norms around these values (see here or here or here or here for examples of what this might look like). To help me figure out what these values were, though, I pulled group work norms/ground rules from four sources, and categorized them.

Values of Group Work

- everyone gets a turn
1) Give everyone in your group a chance to speak
- everyone participates

3 We will ask everyone to say what they think.
2 We will share what we know with each other.
6 We will pay attention and try to think of good ideas

- give reasons for ideas
4) Try to understand what is said
6) Demand good explanations

- ideas are elaborated when necessary, so that everyone understands what is meant
5 We will give reasons for what we say.

- listen to different ideas

2) Listen to what people say
3) Check that everyone else listens

4 Everyone will listen carefully to others and consider what we hear.


8) Treat all opinions with respect

- tentative ideas are treated with respect

Interact with Ideas

5) Build on what others have said
7) Challenge what is said
- partners engage critically but constructively with each other’s ideas
- ideas offered for joint consideration may be challenged
- challenges are justified and alternative ideas or understandings are offered

Joint Responsibility

9) Share responsibility
10) Reach agreement

- opinions are sought and considered before decisions are jointly made
- knowledge is made publicly accountable (and so reasoning is visible in the talk)
1 We will talk together to think about what to do. 
7 We will decide what to do only when everyone has said all they want.
8 We will try to agree about what we think 

Synthesizing the table above, I came up with the following values for myself as I move forward in thinking about group work:

  • Everyone gets a turn to share their ideas and everyone listens
  • Explain reasons or ask for explanation to build group understanding
  • Respectfully challenge and build on each other’s ideas
  • Make decisions together after everyone has shared

It's also extremely important for students to feel comfortable sharing half-formed ideas. This is something that I am hoping to normalize and value in my class overall, but I may emphasize this in group work.

Finally, the following norms for group work are also presented in Strength in Numbers (48). These were separated from their norms for group discussion, which are in the table above. I definitely plan to implement these guidelines for the mechanics of group work in my class.

  • stay focused on your group’s work--no talking outside your group
  • you have the right to ask for help
  • you have the responsibility to give help to anyone who asks
  • helping is not the same thing as telling


  1. Hi Nicole, I found your post via Justin Lanier. I really appreciate the synthesis here.

    I will look forward to learning more with you as you try out these ideas in your classroom.

  2. Thanks for reading! I'm going to be making some final decisions over the next couple of days in how I want to launch and maintain partner work. I'm looking forward to trying it out!