A Rising Tide Can Sink All Boats

Let this be a lesson to you.

I had a college student in my classroom for two weeks one time doing a practicum as part of his teacher education program at a local university. Towards the end of the second week, I gave him a chance to teach a class with my best group of 8th graders. I don’t remember what it was on and it doesn’t really matter because it was an unmitigated disaster. He put them in groups of four, handed out manipulatives the students had never seen before and tried to take them through an exercise they had no experience with. He did it because that’s what they teach education majors in college. I got the same baloney from Ph.D professors who hadn’t been in a classroom in decades – or maybe never. Their mantra is that group work is the Holy Grail of teaching. It’s fun. It motivates. It’s inclusive. It differentiates. It levels the playing field. It’s the rising tide that lifts all boats. Etc etc etc…

Well maybe, but there’s a catch. Effective group work requires a classroom dynamic that will support it. For starters, you have to know the name and temperament of all your students. The teacher has to have absolute control and well established routines. The students need to demonstrate self-control and recognize limits. It takes weeks to establish that environment and some classes never get there. One of my very savvy college instructors (who was also a current and long time teacher in the public schools) told me “Don’t smile at them until Halloween. Then maybe by Thanksgiving, you can try putting them in pairs”. If that goes OK, work up to threes. Never more than fours and then only on special activities. Three is the limit at which most students can work together peacefully and productively. When you get to four or more, there are power struggles and agendas. Some students take over and some just sit back. I might add, we see this in adults, too.


Don’t let conventional wisdom torpedo your group activity.

Be careful about springing new things on students. Make sure you introduce it and guide them through some dry runs. Then rehearse and practice in small chunks and for short time periods. Make sure you go over the group/activity rules in detail. Have a solo alternative activity ready for those who become disruptive. You won’t really know how things will go until you go live. So when you think they’re ready, go for it and have fun.

Also be sure to allocate enough time for set up in the beginning and clean up at the end. The last part is extremely important. Running clean up into dismissal can turn into a train wreck with students coming in and out and stuff all over the place. Our class periods were only 42 minutes long. It wasn’t a lot of time to do anything fancy.

One last thing – Don’t ever have a substitute teacher do a group activity.

Hey, if it was easy, everybody would be doing it…Mister L

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