By Shannon Anderson, author of Coasting Casey: A Tale of Busting Boredom in School
I don’t remember my teachers assigning a lot of cooperative learning activities when I was younger, but when they did require group projects, I cringed. Somehow, I always got stuck doing most of the work.
I recall plenty of information being spelled out for the end product, but not so much for the process. I don’t remember learning about how to work as a team, how to plan, or how to balance the workload. We didn’t take time afterward to reflect on our contributions and make a plan for improvement for the next time.
But as we know, with a growth mindset we can learn from what didn’t go right and do better in the future! That’s where we come in. As teachers of this generation, we must encourage collaboration and explicitly teach what that looks like, sounds like, and feels like in the classroom.
Some reasons we may do cooperative learning in the classroom include:
- to brainstorm, problem-solve, and share ideas
- to support each others’ learning
- to improve communication skills
- to develop leadership skills
- to accomplish a task for the common good
Just as with other social skills we teach, introducing teamwork at the beginning of the year is a great way to set the tone for working collaboratively right from the starting gate. Discussing the importance of valuing others’ opinions, learning to take turns, and balancing the workload is an important key to success before attempting group work.
You may have seen acrostic posters on “GROUPS” hanging in classrooms. Why not have kids get into groups to brainstorm what each letter should stand for and make your own poster? For the G, students may suggest “Give feedback” or “Get along.” Have students create sticky notes with their teams’ ideas, and then come back together as a large group to decide what will be on your class poster.
You can role-play different scenarios and have some students be a good example and others be a nonexample of a good team member. Discuss what could be improved to have better results. You should also model and practice the language that can be used to contribute to group discussions. For example, chart sentence stems for how to agree, disagree, clarify information, summarize what someone said, or state your opinion:
- “I agree with ___________ because . . .”
- “I feel like _________ may not work because . . .”
- “Can you tell me more about . . .”
- “So, what you’re saying is . . .”
- “I think . . .”
Help students understand the importance of working together. As a quote often attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes puts it, “One’s mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions.” Students need to have the courage to share new ideas and accept others’ ideas. We can celebrate our differences in the process because we all have something to contribute for the greater good.
The next step is putting your collaborative skill set to practice! There are all kinds of activities you can do to provide a challenge and promote teamwork. Here are some of my students’ favorites:
- The Human Knot. Put students in groups of four to six. Instruct them to stand in a circle and grab hands with others across the circle (not next to them). Then—without letting go of one another’s hands—students try to untangle the knot so that they are once again standing in a circle, only now they are holding hands with the people on each side of them.
- The Cup Game. Students in groups of four have six cups that they have to stack in a pyramid formation, but they can’t use their hands. Instead, make a four-person gripper out of a rubber band with four strings attached. Here’s a video showing how this works.
- Lego Tasks. Each group is given the same number and size of Legos with instructions to build a car with a garage that will hold it. Instead of this being a race to completion, I usually give an award to the most creative group. (This encourages more brainstorming and planning.)
- Author Chair. Each year, I buy a wooden chair or bench and sand it down. The students have to work in groups, in stations, to paint a portion of the chair. This is not a contest, just a way to work together for the common good. When it’s dry the next day, students all get to sign their names with a permanent marker. When complete, it is a special place for students to sit when sharing their work at the end of writing time every day. At the end of the year, I have a drawing for someone to keep it. (Kids get their names in the drawing throughout the year for showing kindness, initiative, and positive attitudes.)
When you sprinkle in fun activities such as these, you can keep referring back to them when other activities require more intense work or focus. If we start to have issues of bossiness or someone not contributing, I video record the groups with a tablet. Watching yourself in action is a powerful reflection tool. It helps kids realize their own strengths and weaknesses and recognize those traits in others as well. It is also important to provide an opportunity for written reflection in which students can share what went well as a group and individually and what could use improvement.
Teamwork is important, but be sure to vary the groupings students work in. Sometimes I randomly choose students for teams, sometimes I allow them to choose, and sometimes I deliberately put certain students together. It is also important to allow time for students to work independently or in pairs.
We use collaborative skills in our own lives every day. Finding ways to encourage cooperation prepares students for their futures. Try to provide an authentic context to practice, and celebrate kids when you see them doing a wonderful job working together.
Shannon Anderson has her master’s degree in education and is currently a third-grade teacher, high ability coordinator, and presenter and a former first-grade teacher, adjunct professor, and literacy coach. She loves spending time with her family, playing with words, teaching kids and adults, running very early in the morning, traveling to new places, and eating ice cream. She also enjoys doing author visits and events. Shannon lives in Indiana with her husband Matt and their daughters Emily and Madison.
Free Spirit books by Shannon Anderson:
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