EL Education.

Collaborative Culture: Group Work

How can I foster meaningful collaboration in my classroom?

"Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success." –Henry Ford

We've all been in a classroom (maybe our own) where the teacher assigns a group project with no more guidance than passing out the materials needed. In the self-managed classroom, intentional group work is key. Collaborating with peers around meaningful academic work supports students' healthy development, academically and socially, in ways that a teacher alone cannot.

Every group is made up of individuals with their own needs, which lends special importance to the teacher's role in students' group work. The grouping of students should be carefully planned like any other part of the lesson. Once students are grouped, the expectations for how they work together must be taught, practiced, and assessed. 

Learning Target

I can describe how to promote and support effective group work.


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Practice: Giving Clear Directions

Learning Target

I can explain the characteristics of effective directions that allow students to work with accuracy and focus.

What It Is 

  • Effective directions are crisp and clear - including nothing beyond what they absolutely must - so that students can follow them with accuracy and focus.
  • Group work can not function successfully without clear, well-planned directions.
  • It is essential that the teacher think through his delivery of directions beforehand.

What It Looks Like

Watch the video below of teachers giving directions to students. What are some of the key moves for giving effective directions and having students follow them?

Why It Matters

  • Clear directions lay the foundation for respectful, active, collaborative, and growth-minded learners.
  • Within the "safety net" of clear directions, students feel confident and secure in both their own academic efforts and the expectations for working with their peers.

Practice: Volume and Movement in the Classroom

Learning Target

I can describe why volume and movement are essential parts of learning and require structure and monitoring.

What It Is 

  • The most important learning in an active classroom often takes place when students are discussing, debating, analyzing, and creating together. 
  • There are certain times when being silent makes the most sense, and other times when the noise of learning should be evident everywhere.
  • Every classroom should have a range of noise levels and movements that are understood, practiced, and used effectively.
  • It is helpful to have names for the different points on the scale (e.g., this is a silent time; whisper time; conferring time; studio time) that will instantly cue students of the expectation.

What It Looks Like

In this video, watch for teachers setting and practicing guidelines for appropriate noise and movement.

Why It Matters

  • When there is not a good system and learned routine in place to monitor optimal volume or movement, learning can be greatly constrained.
  • Either students will be forced to stay still and silent at desks, or things may be uncomfortably loud and crazy with the teacher regularly shouting and reminding students to quiet down.
  • When noise and movement match the task at hand, however, students and teachers feel comfortable and productive.

Practice: Group Work and Group Discussion

Learning Target

I can describe how structures, protocols, modeling, and guidance build a student's collaboration and discussion skills.

What It Is 

  • Students will benefit from a set of scaffolding  structures and tools to build the skills to work in groups.
    • Explicit norms for group work that compel students to treat each other respectfully, share air time, take the courage to speak up, and build on each other's ideas.
    • Protocols for group work and group discussion that define roles, timing, and steps that shape the conversation.
    • Instruction and practice with academic language and the phrases to facilitate discussion.

What It Looks Like

Students need to learn and practice how to work well together. In this video, watch how teachers review and discuss the norms  necessary to foster respect and shared voices. The use of discussion protocols also provides clear roles and guidance for students.

Why It Matters

  • Effective collaboration and discussion skills are essential for all students to succeed in college, career, and citizenship.
  • Teachers should not assume students have the skills they need to have conversations or accomplish tasks together.
  • Building skills to do this important collaborative work is something that should be a focus at every grade level and in every content area.

Dig Deeper

Synthesize & Take Action

For Teachers...

  1. Reflect on the process by which you give directions for working in groups in class. Do the students ever get confused, or are they clear about what they need to do? Do they start moving into groups before you finish the directions? Does it take them a long time to settle down, or are they ready to work quickly and quietly?
  2. Annotate an upcoming lesson purely in terms of the noise level and movement you think would be optimal. Plan proactively for the management of this lesson. How will you indicate what noise level you expect from students? How will you provide them ongoing feedback?
  3. Make a list of potential discussion protocols you could use during upcoming lessons.

For School Leaders...

  1. Think about a teacher who may be willing to implement new discussion protocols and share her experiences with her colleagues. What protocols might you suggest? Can you videotape the classroom and share with your staff?
  2. What are some of your "look fors" during your next round of classroom observations?  How might you measure teachers' effectiveness with group work?