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Productive Group Work

by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher and Sandi Everlove

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Defining Productive Group Work

Educators since Socrates have known that knowledge is built and extended through the exchange of ideas and that students should be encouraged to question and push each other's understanding. Today, technological advancements have made it possible even for people separated by continents to learn and work collaboratively. In a dramatic example, physician Jerri Nielsen, while based at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, was able to use Web-based technology to confer with doctors in Indiana. Together they diagnosed and planned treatment of Nielsen's breast cancer until she could be airlifted from the station. But whether people collaborate across a tabletop or a digital landscape, the elements of successful productive group work remain the same, as does its ultimate end: a useful result. In a school setting, that result is a new understanding or outcome that leads to academic and social growth.

The Basis of Group Work Today

Although group work has been used in teaching for thousands of years, it really wasn't until the 1970s and the work of Lev Vygotsky that groups were widely recognized as key to the learning process. Perhaps the most influential theorist on the role of peer-assisted learning, Vygotsky drew the world's attention to the vital importance of collaboration. He proposed that "every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people … and then inside the child" (1978, p. 57). In other words, learning is social. What children learn through social interactions with adults and peers forms the basis for more complex thinking and understanding. Over time, these skills, learning, and thinking processes become internalized and can be used independently. In short, by interacting with others, children learn not only what to think but how to think.

Vygotsky believed all learning to be the product of sociocultural phenomena, mediated by interactions with others (Berk & Winsler, 1995), or that the learner's view of the world is shaped by social interactions. Without the benefit of an expanded view, a student's learning is limited by the range of his or her experiences. Thus, interactions with peers expand a student's aptitude for seeking new information. With this assertion, collaboration with peers becomes a necessary part of the learning process of a child. Indeed, Vygotsky identified both the teacher and peers as important agents in the process (Crain, 2005). In this light, we must view group work as more than a means of completing a project or task. Productive group work is an essential stepping stone to learning and mastery.

But as we discussed in the Introduction, group work can go wrong and often does. Even if we recognize that group learning is vital for our students, simply placing them in groups and giving them a task does not mean learning or mastery is soon to follow. Conditions must be right. In their seminal work Learning Together and Alone, David Johnson and Roger Johnson (1975) identified many of the conditions necessary for successful group work. They defined cooperative learning as an instructional arrangement that allows two to six students the opportunity to work together on a shared task in order to jointly construct their knowledge and understanding of the content. Johnson and Johnson's five principles for making the arrangement successful—positive interdependence, face-to-face interaction, individual and group accountability, interpersonal and small-group skills, and group processing—have since become well known to multiple generations of teachers.

Still, although most elementary and middle school teachers report featuring cooperative learning in their classrooms, many also confess to struggling with how to support the peer interactions within the groups (Antil, Jenkins, Wayne, & Vadasy, 1998; Tomlinson, Moon, & Callahan, 1997). In the chapters to come, we will examine each of Johnson and Johnson's principles in detail, offering a rationale for why each principle is important, routines to ensure each principle is incorporated in group work, and classroom examples of how teachers can best support students in groups. To start, we would like to present a brief overview of Johnson and Johnson's five elements and an account of how one teacher uses them in her classroom to make group work productive.

Positive Interdependence

To create positive interdependence within groups, the group task must be designed so that the participation of every member is necessary to its completion, and students must clearly understand their interdependence in accomplishing the task. The task should also capitalize on the variation among group members so that individual strengths can be tapped. Johnson and Johnson (1994) observed that interdependence may be accomplished in the following four ways:

  • Goals can be made interdependent by assigning a task that requires each member to contribute for the group to be successful. In other words, they sink or swim together.
  • Resources can be distributed to ensure each group member has a unique piece of information essential for completing a task, and no one can complete the task alone or without each member's contribution.
  • Rewards are excellent motivators for interdependence when given both for individual contribution to the group task and for the overall group effort and result. Group members then know they have a stake in each other's learning and their own.
  • Roles can be assigned to give each group member a distinct way to participate in the group's work. Each member's job should be necessary to completing the task. Some common roles are recorder, materials manager, encourager, and reporter.

In the Classroom. Fourth grade teacher Theresa Czarnopys and her students at East Oakview School in Northview, Michigan, regularly use productive group work to consolidate and extend their understanding of texts. Ms. Czarnopys calls the group activity she designed for this purpose "Cube-It." After students have completed a common reading, they move to their collaborative groups to discuss six questions that encourage them to create meaning from the text. Group members take turns rolling a die to determine the order in which the questions are addressed. Each number on the die corresponds to one of the six questions. If the first student rolls a 3, she is the discussion leader and note taker for that question. For example, after reading a text about the California Gold Rush, the groups met to roll the die to discuss the following questions:

  1. Describe It: In one year's time, San Francisco grew from a city of 900 people to a whopping 56,000 people! Describe how this growth happened so quickly, giving as many details as possible.
  2. Analyze It: What were some of the problems that resulted from such a huge growth in the number of people in California during the Gold Rush?
  3. Apply It: Many people came to California as a way to "get rich quick" but had no intention of mining gold. What were some of the different ways that people made lots of money as a result of the Gold Rush?
  4. Take a Stand: Do you think it is better to get rich quickly or to stick to a slower but safer method of making money? Why?
  5. Reinvent It: If you had lived during the Gold Rush period, what ideas might you have had to make money without having to mine the gold?
  6. Choose a Different Perspective: Do you think you would have tried to convince your parents to move the family to California to search for gold, or would you have argued against it? Why?

Of course, these questions could be answered independently, but Ms. Czarnopys knows that the students can better clarify and expand their understanding of the content by using and building on the ideas of peers. She ensures participation of each group member by using a "down-and-up" discussion routine. ("Down and up" refers to going around the table to give each student a chance to speak.) Each member of the group folds a piece of paper into six sections and takes notes as others speak. The discussion leader creates a bulleted list of notes that captures the key ideas and main points for each question. These notes become a visible record of the group's collective thinking and also provide each member of the group with a record of his or her own thinking and the thinking of other members of the group. The students know that after their group discussion, groups will be asked to participate in a whole-class discussion of the topic, during which any member of a group may be asked to answer any of the six Cube-It questions. Students clearly understand that the goal is for all to participate and be able to discuss the content. Additionally, knowing that their reward, or group grade, will depend on Ms. Czarnopys's observation of their group discussion and on their performance in the whole-class discussion, they are motivated to include all members in their group talks. One of her students commented, "This is the first time everybody listened to my ideas—even Michael!"

Face-to-Face Interaction

To consolidate and build new understanding, groups need to have considerable face-to-face interaction. Importantly, these interactions should be designed to encourage the exchange of ideas and not just to work out the logistics of completing the assignment. While interaction may seem to be a given of group work, we've seen groups avoid this element by merely splitting up work on a task and agreeing to put the individual pieces together as a whole. For example, we've watched groups assigned to create a PowerPoint presentation quickly divide the work and go off to separate computers to create a few slides. They did come back together to assemble the slides, but without discussion of the concepts contained in the presentation. When the time came to present, the students talked about the slides they made. When questioned, none of the students could address any part of the topic except the one he or she had personally worked on.

To be sure, new technologies are pushing the boundaries of face-to-face interaction. Doug, Nancy, and Sandi are all advocates of technology that promotes learning, and we will address the use of social technology tools, such as Twitter, for group work in Chapter 3.

In the Classroom. Two design elements of the Cube-It activity Ms. Czarnopys used to ensure interdependence also promote face-to-face interaction. Because she requires that each student in the group be prepared to answer any of the six questions during the whole-class discussion, group members must interact and share their ideas to make sure everyone is prepared. They cannot simply divide the questions, making individuals responsible for knowing the answer to one or two questions. The down-and-up routine also ensures every student has a chance to contribute. To keep some students from dominating, Ms. Czarnopys says she "limits the time for critical conversations so that students stay on task." In addition, she supports the interaction of students who may have trouble contributing to the discussion about a particular question by giving them comprehension cue cards.

Individual and Group Accountability

As teachers, our concern is that each student learn, and for this we need to create an accountability system that provides feedback to the individual learner as well as to the group. Teachers often assign both an individual and a group grade for a group task. The key to this accountability system is that the members of the group are aware that each individual will receive a grade and that each is a participant in the evaluation process. Each group member may provide feedback on his or her own performance and the work of others. Johnson and Johnson (1994) also suggest that a group "checker" be identified to ask each member to explain the group's work or responses.

In the Classroom. Ms. Czarnopys holds students accountable for both their group interactions and their individual learning. Students receive a group grade based on their group's performance in the whole-class discussion. Ms. Czarnopys also visits each group as they work on the Cube-It activity and evaluates individual work. She makes notes about participation and engagement, and she listens for evidence of contributions from each member. It's not uncommon to hear her say to a student discussion leader, "I really liked the point so-and-so just made. Could you put her initials next to that comment on your bulleted list?"

She also considers the content of their dialogue as she listens for misconceptions or inaccurate assumptions. This monitoring allows her to scaffold for meaning when a group is stuck on a discussion question.

Additionally, Ms. Czarnopys gives students an individual writing assignment that she uses as part of her assessment system. The thematic focus of the unit, which included the Gold Rush, was on the difference between wishes and dreams, and another text students read and discussed was Alma Flor Ada's 1994 narrative The Gold Coin. Using what they had learned about wishes and dreams from the California Gold Rush text and the narrative piece, she asked them to write individually about the positive and negative aspects of a dream that comes true.

Interpersonal and Small-Group Skills

Group work should promote frequent use of interpersonal and small-group skills. These are some of the applied skills held in such high regard by employers, and they include the ability to resolve conflicts in a constructive manner, to communicate effectively, and to ably draw upon the strengths of others to solve problems. Although they are young, students in classrooms that feature productive group work are learning each day how to organize and coordinate efforts and are acquiring a results-oriented outlook that will serve them well through years to come.

These valuable skills can be taught and practiced using a helping curriculum (Sapon-Shevin, 1998). Students in classrooms that emphasize this approach learn how to offer help to others ("Can I help you find the right chapter?") as well as how to accept such offers ("Yes, can you give me a hand?"). Learners also need to know when and how to request assistance from others ("I don't understand this. Could you explain it to me?"). Often overlooked, but certainly critical, is the skill of declining assistance with grace ("I'd like to try it again first, but I appreciate the offer"). At the heart of practicing interpersonal skills is the reality that all of us are, at different times, givers and receivers of help. Reciprocity in supporting one another is essential if students are to reach productive results.

In the Classroom. Because her students use the Cube-It activity routinely, throughout the year Ms. Czarnopys witnesses growth in the interpersonal skills of each of her students. She has been especially pleased with the effect the many opportunities to practice these skills has had on quieter students. She often sees that while these students may be reluctant at the beginning of the year to offer help, by the end of the year, they are doing so more freely. In some cases, encouraging these students to engage is a matter of fostering self-confidence, while in other cases it may require that students be more cognizant of their need for assistance from others. Ms. Czarnopys notes that "in small groups, quieter students are more willing to share, particularly once a conversation has started and ideas begin to flow."

Group Processing

Although it's the most easily overlooked of all the elements of cooperative learning, frequent and regular group processing is the key to a group's future effectiveness. Teachers often forget to include this step in their group work design. And even when it is incorporated, in the rush to finish the project, turn in the assignment, and hurry off to the next class, students can easily shortchange assessing their work as a group. However, the opportunity for groups to talk to one another about what worked and what didn't is crucial to future success. It's not a matter of blaming individuals but, rather, of figuring out what should change and what should be retained. Educators know that the complex task of school improvement requires the analysis of successes and areas that need improvement. In the same way, learners need an opportunity to notice what they did well and what got in the way.

In the Classroom. Ms. Czarnopys routinely collects feedback from students about their roles in Cube-It groups. She asks them to discuss what was easy and what was hard about the task and to think about the ways they contributed to the process. In addition, she leads classroom discussions to gather evidence of positive contributions. Students may offer examples of a group member who made an important realization that got the group "unstuck" or of a time when a classmate offered assistance to the group by taking the lead on an aspect of the task. Ms. Czarnopys commented that "collaborative work allows for clarifying thinking at all levels of comprehension." Reflecting on Cube-It, one of her students summed up the benefits of productive group work this way: "I like to work in groups—it makes me feel smarter!"

Providing a Meaningful Task

To Johnson and Johnson's five principles of cooperative learning, we would like to add a sixth: a meaningful task. A task for productive group work must offer a challenge or a problem to solve to make all of those principles of cooperative learning come into play. Why does a looming problem make for better group work? Because it's the wrestling with a task that causes students to rely on one another. A spirit of cooperation can bloom when a group is collectively faced with a difficult job to do.

Let's take an everyday example: merging into traffic. You are in your car in heavy traffic on the highway and a lane is ending. Cars are jockeying for position as they squeeze over. Chances are you are either what writer Cynthia Gorney (2008) calls a "lineupper" or a "sidezoomer." The lineuppers, who are patiently waiting their turn, typically don't want to let those rude sidezoomers into the lane. The sidezoomers, on the other hand, are using the available space to get ahead, never mind the line. So how does the problem resolve?

Because we all understand or have experienced the consequences of failing to cooperatively queue—accidents, horns honking, or road rage—we are motivated to work together to avoid these outcomes. When the traffic's moving along smoothly, we really don't notice our fellow drivers. But when merging lanes loom ahead, we start to pay attention to them and to work together, cooperatively queuing with a minimum of braking and speeding up, to ensure everyone gets in the lane and all can move ahead. Students, too, need to have the potential of failure to make them pay attention to each other and what they are doing and to figure out how they might work together toward success. If success is guaranteed, the task is not likely to result in learning.

You will recall from the Introduction that collaborative learning should occur when students are ready to tackle a challenge: after a purpose has been established, modeling has been provided, and they have had sufficient guided practice. If it's too early in the instructional cycle, students are going to give up. But if the timing is right, students will engage. The teacher is there at the elbow of learners to scaffold, but it's acceptable to delay the question, cue, or prompt for just a bit to let them try to sort it out. In fact, there is an entire research base on the importance of "productive failure" as an essential element of productive group learning (e.g., Kapur, 2008). It seems that when the task is structured so that it is difficult, but not impossible, learners actually outperform those who were in groups that had tasks that ensured success. Groups truly need a problem that might result in an incorrect answer, a failed experiment, or inaccurate conclusion.

In the Classroom. Consider how Theresa Czarnopys structures productive group work with the fearless confidence of an educator who knows that her students need time to wrestle with difficulty and risk possible failure. She deliberately constructed a challenging task. Her Cube-It questions ("Do you think it is better to get rich quickly or to stick to a slower but safer method of making money? Why?") cannot be answered with a pat reply. These kinds of questions also make it unlikely that group members will reach the same conclusions, and so they generate comparison and debate—discussion! And, although she monitors the groups' progress, she strategically delays using cues, questions, and prompts to let the students figure out what they think. She explains that she has to remember to "allow students the opportunity to create meaning from the questions and not to be too quick to tell them what the question is asking." In other words, she recognizes the productivity of possible failure because she trusts the process of collaborative learning and knows that the gradual release of responsibility will result in increased student learning. "For me," she says, "there is no better learning for students than that which they take on themselves and from each other."

A Few Thoughts on Differentiation and Productive Group Work

The issue of task difficulty during productive group work can tempt teachers into reverting to ability grouping. Resist the urge. As we noted in the Introduction, the group tends to be wiser than the individual. The differentiation that occurs in this phase of instruction is accompanied by the scaffolding that peers are able to provide for one another; these are not individual tasks. Consider, then, that productive group work is a critical phase that occurs within a larger differentiated classroom experience.

Meet the Teachers

Throughout the book, we will peek inside different classrooms to see how teachers are incorporating the elements of cooperative learning to make their groups productive. However, there are three educators we will visit regularly at the end of each chapter. Let's introduce them now: Aida Allen, Kathy Vogel, and Brian Gibbs.

Aida Allen is an elementary teacher in San Diego, California, who has had the rare opportunity to do what educators in previous centuries took for granted— teach the same group of students from kindergarten through 5th grade. All of her students speak Spanish as their first language and are enrolled in a bilingual program designed to build literacy skills in both Spanish and English. In the following chapters, you will see how Ms. Allen uses collaborative learning to build the social and academic language skills of her students.

Kathy Vogel is a 7th grade English and social studies teacher in Northview, Michigan. Although the students in this suburban community are native English speakers, they also need the oral and written experiences that come with productive group work. Across the next five chapters, you will read about an innovative research project Ms. Vogel's students complete together to deepen their understanding of world events.

Brian Gibbs teaches high school social studies in Los Angeles, California, at one of the largest high schools in the country. Although his classes frequently exceed 40 students per class, Mr. Gibbs uses group work to create a classroom where students' understanding of history is regularly on display as student groups reenact historical events, characters, and culture.

We hope the glimpses inside these teachers' classrooms will illuminate the process of collaborative learning and demonstrate the potential of productive group work: what your students may achieve socially and academically, and how you can support them in that learning.


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