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Month: March 2017

Teaching Collaborative Group Work: Day 1

The Need to Change

I’ve noticed that my student project teams don’t always do group work together as well as I think they should, given that they are university students. Haven’t they had lots of opportunity to work in groups before? This shouldn’t be anything new.

What I’m learning, however, is that students need explicit instruction on how to work as a group, since productive group work is not the default. I’ve been working with resources from Edutopia, The Buck Institute for Education, the Productive Group Work book from ASCD, and this handy paper by Phipps and Phipps on Group Norm Setting. I’ve learned that, much like my classroom, it’s important for groups to articulate the norms and values that they want to see from their group members.

The Group Work Lesson

We started with the daily Do Now, which was a survey on Socrative asking students three questions:

  1. Think of some bad experiences working with a group. Why was it a bad experience? [Short Answer]
  2. Think of some good experiences working with a group. Why was it a good experience? [Short Answer]
  3. Generally, how do you feel about working with a group?
    • I love it.
    • I like it, but it’s not my favorite.
    • I don’t feel good or bad about it.
    • I don’t like it, but I can do it.
    • I really hate it.

I use the bell ringer question of the day or short survey to get students thinking about the topic of the lesson, and also to activate the vocabulary they are going to need to work through the day’s tasks. As I work teaching ELLs, our primary goals are language goals, but I try to address content and 21st century skills as much as the language itself. Many of the students have a wide receptive vocabulary, but lack opportunities and experience to turn their receptive skills into productive ones, which is where the Project Based Learning aspect of the class comes in. Today we’re working on collaboration and Social-Emotional Learning to build a solid foundation for their coming group work.

The next task was to put students in groups (redacted), and see how they functioned together. I used today’s class as a test to see how this particular grouping of students would function for the upcoming group work. I was satisfied in general, although there is one student I’m considering moving.


The group development task that we shared was to build a house of cards that would hold a film canister with some 100-won coins in it for weight (they are comparable to a quarter in size).





Groups started with individual work, where students drew up a design individually for three minutes, and then presented their ideas to their groups. Groups then negotiated on the best way to proceed before being given their cards.

This idea came out of a video on TeacherTV on teaching STEM to middle school students. The teacher for this video is Donna Migdol, and I thought the ways she handled group work were effective and worth trying out, so I’m working on some of that in my classes. I didn’t have time in today’s lessons to work on the “chiming” activity that she used, but I’m sure I’ll get around to it at some point in this project.

So after the introduction, students got to work with 27 plastic-coated cards and 15 minutes of time. They tried, failed, negotiated, tried new ideas, and the winners will get some homemade chocolate chip cookies next week.


In the next segment of class, we reflected on our survey questions from the beginning of class, and thought about how we really wanted groups to work. This is an activity taken from the Setting Group Norms paper by Phipps and Phipps.

Phipps and Phipps (and others) argue that it’s better to articulate group expectations and norms than to let them evolve on their own, as this can have negative outcomes. They also emphasize distinguishing norms from rules, as the latter has a top-down approach, whereas norms come from collective participation.

The activity involved large sheets of paper being hung around the room for each group to use to document their thinking in each of the three categories that Phipps and Phipps outlined: How individuals interact, how individuals act toward the group, and how the group acts toward individuals.  The paper by Phipps and Phipps included a lengthy list of idea from students in California, while mine were a little slower due to working in a second language. Their ideas, however, were the same, and it all comes down to mutual respect.

We wrapped up the activity by talking about consensus vs. majority rule, and why that was important to having a healthy group. We didn’t have a lot of time, so we may do some role playing and acting in class to demonstrate what the behaviours look like.

Class ended with our usual Exit Ticket, also on Socrative, with an opportunity for students to give a little extra feedback to me on their feelings about working in a group now they they’ve worked through some activities and talked about how they want groups to operate. I think I may make a poster for the class that includes the results of their first survey with anonymous quotes so they can see their own voices and the opinions of others together. The feelings are repeated by all class members, so seeing the consensus in the classroom may help them understand better that they aren’t alone.

Up Next

Next class I’m planning to have a lesson on group roles and how they function differently but all help move the group toward a common outcome.

Your Thoughts

Have you done any explicit training  on how to work in groups? I’d love to hear about your experiences so that I can learn from how things went in your classroom or group environment. Please leave your comments below.

Creating High Performance Learning Environments


When planning to create a learning environment with high expectations for students, it is important to consider some of the existing and popular teaching methods, and consider whether or not these styles promote the type of environment you are looking to establish for your own classroom. Today we are looking at three different scenarios, an elementary STEM class, a Chinese-language elementary maths class, and a Whole Brain high school class, all of which are, or appear to be, in the United States. We’ll look at both the academic and behavioral expectations set by the teachers in each scenario, and consider the norms and procedures for the class, and how these support student performance.

Case Study 1: Roller Coaster Unit

Similar lesson plan by Robert Mace on Glog

Academic Expectations

This lesson and the associated interview demonstrate very high academic standards for these students. They are working across the curriculum, developing skills for planning, financial literacy, knowledge in physics and engineering, and using math skills to track data. They are also developing their “soft skills” or 21st Century skills through communicating, collaborating, being creative and innovative, using critical thinking to evaluate their process and outcomes, and their Career and Life Skills, including social skills, productivity and initiative.

There is a balance here between independent and group work, with students working alone on designs and plans, but then coming together with their group to present their ideas and negotiate which elements they are going to use and test on their roller coasters. Students also have a whole-class opportunity to share their successes and failures with the other teams through the “chiming” activity. In this activity, students can learn from the successes and failures of the other groups without needing to go through the same experiences themselves. One of my favorite maxims has been to “learn from the mistakes of others; you don’t have time to make them all yourself.” This chiming activity promotes exactly that kind of learning, which while indirect is still relevant and valuable.

The other key takeaway here how Ms. Migdol reinforces the use of precise language and vocabulary at each stage. It was great to watch students self-correct when they started to lapse into less formal language, but caught themselves and returned to the higher register. The students seemed very self-aware that they were on camera and that they needed to perform their best for this demonstration. It appears as though Ms. Migdol did a lot of reinforcement work to have the students practice speaking about the aspects of their projects with the appropriate academic terminology, which prepares students for further scientific learning.

Behavior Expectations

There isn’t much demonstrated correction or explanation of expected behaviors in this video, but there is much evidence of a well-practiced group of students in these expected behaviors. Ms. Migdol merely needs to outline what kind of activity is happening next, along with a basic reminder of what that is, and students begin the process. We see students that are familiar with listening to each other, supporting and offering suggestions to other teammates, negotiating without conflict, and cooperating toward an end goal. In each group students have clear roles and know the responsibilities of each role, making it familiar and comfortable for them to operate in their groups.

Norms and Procedures

The norms for this class appear to be tied to 21st Century Skills: cooperation and social skills like showing respect to each other. She has set up roles for each person in the group, creating procedures for each role that are exercised throughout the group activities. Students have choice in which role they take on, as long as all roles are covered. This also ensures that each student is contributing to the group’s progress and productivity.

When working in groups and as a class, students show respect through active listening, turn-taking by raising their hand to contribute, and giving detailed feedback to each other.

Case Study 2: Chinese Immersion Math Lesson

Background on math education in China

Academic Expectations

It’s not entirely clear what the expectations are, but part of that could be not understanding what the teacher says between activities and also the brevity of the clip. It appears that the teacher expects the students to know their multiplication tables so they can chant along, and if students aren’t up to speed with their peers, they will be aware of it as they are not keeping up with the chant. The teacher doesn’t call anyone out for failing to keep up, but the unspoken message here is uniformity of output.

Behavior Expectations

Students are expected to participate in the group chants and recitations of their  times tables. The teacher reminds the students to listen carefully while the other students are giving an answer. When asking for individual answers, students are expected to raise their hands and wait to be called on to give their answer. This part of the lesson is entirely teacher-centered, but as it is only a two-minute clip, it’s impossible to ascertain what expectations exist for other types of activities.

Norms and Procedures

Transitions are handled by group chants as the teacher re-sets for the next activity. Students are well-practiced in these chants, and it creates a short but managed transition between activities in the same lesson. The students are seated in a single group on the carpet in front of the whiteboard.

Case Study 3: Whole Brain Teaching

Whole Brain Teaching website | Introduction to WBT Playlist via Youtube

Academic Expectations

It’s not entirely clear what the academic expectations are from this video. The class seems very teacher-focused, even though students work together, it is on direction and within a very small limit set by the teacher. I don’t see any evidence of higher-order thinking or engagement with the materials here. I don’t see constructivist principals at work here, nor any evidence that the students are developing their own schema.

Behavior Expectations

Students in a Whole-Brain class start out with a recitation of the class rules, which are uniform across WBT classes and have corresponding actions.

Students are expected to engage with the physical aspect of the class, doing the actions that correspond to key terms and ideas in the lesson. Students repeat the mini-lesson in concert after the teacher to their peer(s), reinforcing the information in the mini-lesson.

Norms and Procedures

Trigger words (“class” and “teach”) have a corresponding response from students (“yes” and “okay”), which are said and acted in the same voice and style as the teacher. The style changes from trigger to trigger, maintaining a sense of fun and interest. Silliness is expected and promoted for an atmosphere. that is light but has rigor. They also repeat key instructions like page number and textbook that is being used as they move through the action to complete the instruction.


Each of these methods holds students to high standards, but the outcomes or values that drive these expectations are not the same in each case. While it is certainly important to hold students to high standards, it is important to also consider the values that these expectations promote, and whether those values are appropriate to the culture and community that we are preparing our students for.

When considering what these values may be, it is worth looking at the norms and procedures that come out of these styles and methods. The norms and procedures will demonstrate what is valued in that environment and promoted by the method, and should match the community and culture’s desired outcomes for their children.

My Students

The students that I’m working with at the moment are first and second year university students at a mid-sized institution in South Korea. These students come from a rigorous education program that produces students who score very well on global education tests, and a system that has traditionally given high degree of respect to teaching as a profession.

Students are accustomed to a direct-instruction, teacher-centered classroom, although the Ministry of Education in 2012 started moving toward a new, constructivist and student-centered curriculum and recently outlawed corporal punishment in classes (Associated Press, 2010) as a violation of students’ human rights and an affront to their dignity. The recency of these changes has created some uncertainty among teachers and concern about behavior, but in my personal experience students do not have any severe behaviorial issues, and classroom management is a simple affair.

While university is a stepping stone to a professional career, for most students in Korea it’s a time to relax a little between the grind of public school and that future career. It’s also an important time for networking, as the networks developed during university will be the core of an adult’s resource community when it comes to both landing a job and advancing in their careers. Some groups of students will even make their own “community chest” that members pay into and that gets drawn on when members have financial need; a type of communal insurance for the friends. The importance of these relationships cannot be overstated.

The values of the students and the culture for this period is on forming and developing strong peer bonds, and as a result, classes and academics, while still important, often come second to social events that serve to enrich these bonds.  While in North America university is comparatively easier to get into and harder to get out of, Korean universities are harder to get into and easier to graduate from. This can cause a strain between my North American values and expectations, and my students’ Korean values and expectations.

Application to My Classroom

I have been working to set high expectations in my classes, but don’t see the WBT working well for my students, as I think it would be too hokey to get them to buy into. The rote memorization, recall and chanting of the Mandarin immersion math class would be familiar, but is hardly engaging in the way I hope to be with my students. As with the STEM class, I use PBL with my classes, and we started the semester off this week with a discussion about expectations and norms. We worked together to establish our class expectations using the guide by Emma Mendiola of San Antonio College.

I am planning to launch our groups in the second half of this week, and will employ the suggestions from Maurice L. Phipps and Cynthia A. Phipps outlined in their paper, “Group Norm Setting: A Critical Skill for Effective Classroom Groups.” Like in Ms. Migdol’s class, I want all my students to have a role and function within their group that doesn’t leave one or two students picking up the slack for the others, as happened with one of my project groups last semester. I will probably also pick up both the chiming activity, and the development of individual proposals as a formative assessment tool. I found that element of the project, and the students’ need to negotiate and advocate for their designs to be both realistic and helpful. The chiming activity was a great way to get students out of their own groups and collaborating through their struggles and finding solutions together, which is also a key aspect of life and work outside of the school environment.