Many teachers believe that you should start each school year with a disciplined, teacher-centric environment and relax it over time. However, research shows that to really get a handle on classroom management and encourage student achievement, a teacher should immediately allow kids to talk and build community through collaboration. In fact, the ASCD publication The New Circles of Learning: Cooperation in the Classroom and School by David W. Johnson, Roger T. Johnson, and Edythe Johnson Holubec, suggests that to be truly effective, a teacher needs to use collaboration and cooperative strategies at least 60 percent of the time. That being the case, we can’t avoid introducing them early on.
Why Collaborative Groups?
Learning is a social activity, and interaction with course material is not meant to be defined as simply between a textbook and an individual student. In fact, Johns Hopkins University researchers found in a two-year study of schools that used cooperative learning that “high, average, and low achievers all achieved better than controls at similar achievement levels.”
Education research supports more collaborative grouping in the classroom—and so do students. In Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement, I explore the results of a nationwide survey of students in sixth through 12th grade that asked the simple question: “What engages you as learners?” What began as a poll of my own classroom has now become a survey that encompasses classrooms from all over the country, from every school model, from rural to urban schools, from coast to coast.
The survey results could be deconstructed into 10 categories, each backed by research. Yet no response appeared in the student engagement survey with more frequency than getting to collaborate, talk, and work with their peers. Period.
Moving Toward a More Collaborative Classroom
It can be scary that first time you dive into the collaborative learning pool, in particular at the beginning of the school year when you don’t know your students yet. I remember being the teacher with the rows of desks, and I remember the questions running through my head that first time I shoved those desks around to create a table group.
My initial questions reflected a panicked, lizard-brain focus on the control I thought I’d lose. But here’s what really happened once I embraced collaborative learning:
When I look back now, my questions seem ridiculous, because so much has become better and more effective. But how do you form groups at the beginning of the school year when you have yet to learn the students?
Tips for Successful Collaborative Grouping
There are strategies you need to put in place when you are asking students to participate in group work, especially in the beginning of the year. Without them, you’re setting the students and the strategy up for failure.
Constantly Shuffle Kids Around: Send the signal that changes can happen at any moment. Set up the classroom for easy, fluid grouping. Label the positions at each table group to quickly create new, random groups at will. The first week of school, I might declare, “All Oberons meet me at my desk!” or “All Hemingways group together to give peer feedback on your journals!” This makes grouping kids more equitable and less threatening. Base the names of the seat positions on names/vocabulary from your subject area. Break down cliques and self-imposed groupings so that the clique is the classroom community itself.
Create Agreements Right From the Start: Create a whole-class shared document, such as a Classroom Constitution or Classroom Contract. Start by making norms as a class. Small groups can then mimic the process whenever they begin a group project together.
Give Students Choice Immediately: Many of these students have worked together before coming to your class, so feel free to ask their advice. I generally ask students to list four kids they’d like to work with, and I promise they’ll have one from that list. This method honors student choice, but also gives you some modicum of control based on what you might already be learning about your new students—individually and as a group.
Using collaboration from the start is about creating a classroom that functions as a cohesive group, one that helps students lift each other up through individual challenges and models what a collective mentality can accomplish.