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Friday, 1 February 2013

Is Working in Small Groups NOT WORKING?

For many teachers here in North America the year is almost half over. Our colleagues on semester systems are just beginning their second chance for a great year :-) while some of our elementary colleagues, who were hoping students would return from Christmas more ready to learn, are looking for  ideas to improve the learning between now and the end of the year. While hope is a good thing, it isn't enough. For those of you struggling with small group work, let me make a few suggestions from an assessment point of view:

1. Ask students what's important when working as a group. List the ideas... without editing.

2. Give students a brief task to do in a group. Sorting a bin of items, composing a collection of words, or solving a word problem (don't make it too tough) - something that can be done in 2 -3 minutes. Afterwards, ask students if they noticed something else that is important when working in a small group. Add to the list.

3. Have one student in the group talk about what they did on the weekend, last night, at the last recess, and so on.  After listening, each student needs to say one thing that that reminds them of - a connection they are making.  Continue so that each student can share a memory of a recent event. This helps students practice active listening.  It can also serve as a foundation to the work that we have to do in literacy, as we have students connect text to self.

4. When finished, ask students what else was important when working in a small group. Add to the list.

The next time you plan to have students work in small groups, begin by reviewing the list they developed earlier. You might consider adding one or two more things to the list explaining why they are important when working in a small group.

Then, prior to small group work beginning, publicly appoint a student observer for each group. Consider selecting students who need to see what working in a small group looks like and sounds like. Give the observer two things to watch for and a clipboard on which to make notes. Tell them, while all students are listening, that their job is to be observers and to report to the large group one compliment and one suggestion from the list for improvement.

Keep small group working time short. Be sure to end it before it "goes off the rails." When the group work ends, take time to have the observers report out one compliment for the group they were observing and one thing they might work on to be even better. Treat all the observations made respectfully. Collect the observation notes and add them to your observations. They are observations; they are data.

Later, when you are about to have students working in small groups, take time to review the list. Appoint different students to be observers and to report out. Ask different students to observe different things. Give them 'official-looking' clipboards to use. Treat their observations as 'official' observations that go into your evidence collection.

Once students have begun to work independently it is time to add any remaining ideas to the list of what makes effective small group work. These ideas may be collected over days or weeks or months depending on the challenges present in your class. Once the list is comprehensive, have students work together to sort the ideas into groups of similar ideas. Then, ask students to work together. 

It is worth getting small group work right in classrooms. We know from 21st century skills that our students are going to need to work with others. We also know that they need to work with others RIGHT NOW because they can be great resources for each other. And that means everyone learns more.

All our best,

Anne and Sandra

PS These ideas and strategies are based on ideas found in Setting and Using Criteria by Kathleen Gregory, Caren Cameron and Anne Davies. We will be exploring ways to use these ideas in our August Institutes.Join us in Canmore, Alberta (near Banff) and Atlantic Canada! We are looking forward to once again working with a terrific group of educators!


  1. Great post! As I was reading it occurred to me that doing something like this with adults would be good too :-)

    It also reminded me of a process of defining team roles based on the work of William Isaacs, David Kantor (four player model) and later Tammy Erickson (HBR post).

    When I was in grad school residency (leadership) and studying team process we used puzzles to explore how small teams worked. Each team was given a puzzle to put together without speaking. The experience left a lasting impact on me. We did other things to nourish our team but the puzzle was so informing!


  2. Hi Jamie,
    Yes I've used the same process with adults... it is very powerful! It is one of those wonderful strategies that is supported by research across more than one field of inquiry. Thanks for sharing the puzzle building connection - what a fabulous task.