According to National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2016) Job Outlook 2016, the attribute that employers seek most in job candidates is their ability to collaborate. In fact, according to ascd publication, communication skill at 70.2%, collaboration at 79.9% and leadership skills at 80.1% are the 3 top employability skills.
In schools more and more teachers have started to see value in creating opportunities for students were they can collaborate to jointly work on projects and assignments. But there is also an opposing view that collaboration does not always support learning for all students as some tend to grab all the air time and some are just happy to be passive listeners in the group.
Prework for group work
What is therefore important is to think of the class configuration in some more depth and not just decide the configuration based on class strength. Secondly, setting group objectives with students for the group work and thirdly, an emphasis on social and emotional learning for developing positive attitude, self efficacy, purpose, commitment and empathy.
The question therefore then is, what could be a good class configuration? Large groups with 5 or more students or small groups with 3 or 4 students? What ever the configuration the teacher decides, before simply putting them into groups, it is important to ensure that the students receive structured practice and skill building so that they are able to contribute to the group and engage in active learning.
To start with, smaller groups of 2 to 4 can be more cohesive where each member would have specific responsibilities to perform, have better communication and trains students well to work in bigger groups later. Small group size also gives the quieter members more comfort and sense of security and is good for listening, questioning and clarifying. You can read more about group configurations here.
For me, having odd number groups have always worked as that brings in a voting dynamics when a consensus has to be reached within the group.
Larger groups of 5 to 7, bring in more perspective, variety of role distribution. But large groups can also loose task focus and the feeling of cohesiveness, decrease safety for reticent members, leading to delays in completion of tasks and honoring commitments specially if the group work is to extend for longer than a week.
Setting clear objectives, success criteria and roles and responsibilities at the start provides focus to the group and brings in students who ordinarily would not have been more participative. This also gives greater opportunity for reflective learning in terms of accomplishments, and accountability.
Incorporating the four elements represented by SAFE (Durlak et al., 2010, 2011) in the planning process would support social and emotional learning of the students.
The acronym SAFE stands for:
Sequenced: connected and coordinated sets of activities to foster skills development
Active: active forms of learning to help students master new skills
Focused: emphasis on developing personal and social skills
Explicit: targeting specific social and emotional skills
The more students are encouraged to collaborate, not only would they enjoy learning, but also would be exposed to real life work culture that exists. Collaborating with friends and sometimes with different students based on the different skill sets they bring, develops in them engaged citizenship and agency. But I lead them gradually into this space. First with small group collaboration and then collaborating in larger groups, longer collaborative projects and eventually self-directed collaborative activities.