As teachers, we know it’s important to create a classroom environment that promotes collaboration, engagement, and belonging. With the emergence of artificial intelligence, it’s even more essential to help students build “human skills” such as collaboration and empathy—skills that machines can’t duplicate and that are highly valued in society.
The middle school science classroom is an ideal place for building and practicing these skills—especially through the use of learning teams, a strategy described in the book Choice Theory in the Classroom, by William Glasser. According to Glasser, “Students gain a sense of belonging by working together in learning teams of two to five students.”
At the heart of Glasser’s work is Choice Theory, the premise that individuals only have the power to control themselves and have limited power to control others. Glasser emphasizes, for example, that all human beings have the need to belong and to love, the power to make a difference, and the freedom to make choices and have fun.
Learning teams satisfy many of these needs and capacities. And in middle school, when peer interactions greatly influence students’ learning experiences, they can be even more powerful. Here’s how to implement them.
Getting Started with Learning Teams
At the beginning of a project or investigation, place each student in a learning team, and ask each teammate to choose a role. A successful team uses all of the students’ contributions to complete the project or investigation in ways that meet requirements and demonstrate high-quality work and learning. I created the following roles for my eighth-grade science students, but they’re adaptable for other subjects and grade levels:
The Voice: The spokesperson for the group. This student communicates and interacts with the teacher, relaying important information and representing the team’s perspectives. This role enhances communication skills and empowers students to take ownership of their learning. Teams need to communicate with each other so that The Voice can accurately ask for assistance when needed. This extra layer of communication within each team helps students develop their speaking and listening skills.
Captain Craftsmanship: The person who takes charge of maintaining high-quality work within the team, checks for success, and troubleshoots any issues that arise. This student is responsible for making sure each peer is completing their work in a way that reflects the investigation guidelines on the rubric. One of the main goals of Captain Craftsmanship is to make sure that no one on the team falls behind.
The Materials Manager: The person who is responsible for handling lab materials and facilitating cleanup. In addition to gathering and returning materials, this student practices delegating tasks so that the lab tools and workspaces are well-maintained. Students who assume this role learn to lead by example and get to practice respectfully asking others to help.
The Core Value Commander: The person who plays a vital role in ensuring respect and inclusion within the team. This student helps to make sure that all voices are heard. They ensure that all team members have a chance to offer their input before the group moves on to the next task. The Core Value Commander reminds the team of the classroom norms and encourages all members to uphold them.
The most effective type of collaboration occurs when students are placed on heterogeneous teams by the teacher. It’s also beneficial to frequently switch up teams and roles, as this maximizes the opportunity for students to interact with all of their peers and experience different responsibilities—both those that align with their strengths and those that are outside of their comfort zones.
Taking time for reflection after a learning team session is important and powerful. First, ask students to reflect on how well they’ve satisfied the requirements of their role by answering questions like “What went well?” and “What could I do better next time?”
Next, invite students to reflect on how well their teammates carried out their responsibilities, contemplating the same questions. This independent reflection can lead into a full-class debrief, where you and your students can identify and explore common themes. The goal of this exercise is to determine how students can improve individually and collectively and to allow students to see that what they do during learning activities matters. This practice reinforces a sense of belonging and highlights how each student has the power to contribute to the team in a meaningful way.
Taking an intentional approach to celebrating success creates a supportive environment where teachers and students can uplift and inspire one another. In my classroom, when each team completes an investigation and shares their work, it’s referred to as a ”Team Win.”
Celebrating these wins, often in an over-the-top manner, adds a layer of excitement and fun to the learning environment. Students who struggle to complete independent work often find success when placed on a learning team. By providing positive reinforcement, we can position students to duplicate and build upon these small successes.
Benefits of Learning Teams for Teachers
When students are working together in learning teams, teachers have more freedom to move around the classroom and observe the learning process in real time. This better positions us to provide immediate feedback and support to individual students and teams as needed.
Additionally, by being actively engaged in collaborative activities, students are more likely to help each other when they encounter difficulties and address misconceptions among themselves. This peer-to-peer support not only fosters a sense of community, belonging, and teamwork but also reduces students’ reliance on the teacher for constant intervention.
Learning teams often increase student engagement, as learners feel motivated and accountable for their contributions to the team. As a result, we as teachers can focus more on facilitating the learning experience rather than managing classroom behavior, creating a positive and productive classroom environment.