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Working in groups is never something that I have enjoyed, my instincts are to take a task, go somewhere quietly and work on it all by myself. Sometimes this is a great way to work and solitude certainly has it’s place in being creative, but being able to work with a team is a valuable skill. In language classrooms in fact, it is essential.
As a teacher, I have sometimes struggled to work effectively with groups of other teachers and I watch many of my students struggle with the same issues. I realized however, that I have spent countless hours observing how groups function. Those hours spent in my classrooms watching students interact in groups has given me insights into how a single student can turn a group into an effective learning unit and how I can help all of my students (and myself) to get more out of working in groups.
I have watched students inspire, teach, question, scaffold, support, encourage, and motivate each other in and I have also watched students, stifle, embarrass and silence each other. The difference between the learning that takes place in both groups is vast. Here are 5 things I have observed about individuals who always seem to be in the highest functioning groups.
1. Those Individuals seem to be really interested in the other members of their group.
It doesn’t matter if a student is shy or outgoing, if he/she asks questions about the other group members and really listens to the answers the group will function better. A group member who is fascinated with his or her other groupmates helps everyone to feel important and interesting. It doesn’t matter what the group is discussing, if one member really wants to know what and how everyone thinks, the conversation will become lively and fun. People generally love to talk about themselves so encourage students be the person who really wants to hear everyone speak. This is great for shy people because if they learn to ask great questions, the other members of the group will happily do much of the talking leaving them free to listen and learn.
How to help students develop this skill:
Ask students to watch how great interviewers like Oprah Winfrey or Jimmy Fallon interact with their guests. You could have students watch short sections of these videos: Oprah's interview with J.K. Rowling and Jimmy Fallon's interview with Dan Rather.
How do they show the other person that they are interested in what they have to say? Have students make a list of things that they observe about the interviewers body language, facial expression, tone of voice, choice of words and how they react to what the other person is saying. Then have them think about which ones they do well when they are talking to people in groups and which ones they are not doing. Have each student choose one thing that they want to work on in that day's discussion and then reflect on if they were able to improve that skill or not. How did other people in their group react to what they were doing differently?
2. They enjoy helping other group members.
If a student gets into a group in which the other members do not have as high a skill level as she does, she has a choice. She can decide that this is way too easy for her and there is nothing for her to learn in this group or she can choose to help her group members to understand better and up their level. When she decides to help her group members, she is also helping herself gain valuable skills. No matter what her group is working on, if she is able to explain it clearly to her group she will not only get the practice of speaking and being listened to, but she will understand the material better herself. Being the student with the highest language abilities in a group is far from being a detriment, rather it is a great opportunity to clarify understandings and thinking. As teachers, we know how powerful a learning experience teaching is. That is one of the reasons I love teaching; I love learning! When students have the opportunity to teach their classmates, they will also have a chance to experience that kind of learning.
How to help students with this skill:
In my classes I try to give my students many opportunities to teach each other. This week was my first week of the semester with my new students so I asked them to choose different short videos to watch in English. It was their job to teach the other students one new word they learned from the video, explain the video's topic and either recommend or not recommend the video.
I teach TOEFL skills so each week they must take some TOEFL quizzes and bring in their mistakes. In small groups, they then show their mistakes to their classmates and everyone helps each other to understand the grammar, listening and reading mistakes. Only after they have discussed it and tried to figure it out together, do they ask me for help. I have found that most of the time they do not need my help. Rarely do they all make the same mistake, so in any given group, there is someone who is able to explain the correct answer.
3. They are not afraid to laugh at their own mistakes.
No matter what level a student is, people will enjoy having him in their group if he makes them laugh or if he laughs at their jokes. Language learning gives people an infinite number of opportunities to be funny either on purpose or otherwise. If a student makes a mistake, it is funny, and they laugh at themselves it helps everyone feel better.
How to help students with this skill:
If you create an atmosphere in the classroom in which mistakes are honored and appreciated, students will feel free to make them. Showing that you don’t take yourself too seriously will help the class relax and take risks. If everyone is afraid to make a mistake for fear of looking stupid, the conversation will die rapidly and everyone will sit in uncomfortable silence. It is probably not a good idea to laugh at someone else’s mistakes if he or she is not laughing but laughing at your own can be a great thing.
Ask students to read this "How to Learn to Laugh at Yourself" article. Ask them if they think this is good advice.
Have students think of one time when they laughed at a mistake they made. Write a short story about what happened and have students share their stories with each other.
4. They forgive other people and give them the benefit of the doubt.
It can be infuriating if you are doing group work and not everyone is doing their part. It is easy to get upset and blame other people for messing up the group. The only problem is that your learning is being affected by this attitude. No one knows why someone else isn’t getting their work done, there may very well be a very important reason that they are not sharing with the group. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, what matters is that you are still learning. Helping someone in your group gives you the opportunity to get more practice with the material and ultimately learn faster. It is also better for building relationships and forgiving yourself when you mess up on something and everyone messes something up sometime. For more information on the benefits of doing this, read this article entitled "Three Reasons to Give People the Benefit of the Doubt".
How to help your students with this skill:
Have students write journal piece about one time they didn't do something they were supposed to do and let people down. What was happening in their lives that prevented them from doing their work? Did people forgive them or not? How could people have helped them to do a better job?
Have them discuss this with each other. Then have them make a list of things that often stop people from doing their best work, like having a job that keeps them up late at night, feeling sad or angry about something, not knowing what to do etc. While they are working with other students, ask them to think about what they know and what they don't know about each other and how they can help each other do better work instead of blaming each other for not doing something.
5. They show their admiration for the work of others and let others teach them.
If someone does something, says something or shows you something, react positively. Wow, that is really cool! How did you do that? Let yourself be inspired by your group mates and ask them to teach you how they did something. The next time you get together, bring something with you that was inspired by them and show it to them. Ask them what they think of your efforts and if they have any suggestions to improve it.
How to help your students develop this skill:
Give students opportunities to bring work into class that show off things they are really good at like drawing, math, music and dance. These are not usually things that are highlighted in language classes but if you give students lots of choices about how they can complete an assignment, it will enable students to show off their talents. Then ask students to share their work with other people. Teach students phrases that show appreciation in English like: Wow, I love that!, Cool, how did you do that?, or That's amazing! Then encourage your students to use one of their classmate's work as inspiration to do their next assignment.
Explain to your students that ultimately, one person can have a great influence on an entire group. This is fantastic for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is YOU, as that one person who is making your group great, you get to learn more and have a better time in class.
I have noticed that there are certain individuals who bring these qualities to every group they are in. No matter who this person is working with, his or her group is having a great time, learning a lot and taking full advantage of the time they have together. This means that those individuals are in “good” groups 100% of the time and they are getting more out of class than anyone else. It doesn’t matter if you are the most skilled member of the class or the least. It doesn’t matter if you are shy or outgoing. It is the attitude you bring with you to the group that makes all the difference.
What do you do in your classes to encourage students to develop their group skills? Do you love doing group projects in your classes or hate them? Comment below, I would love to hear from you!
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Hi, I'm Kia.
I help ESL / EFL teachers create fun, effective courses that students love.