We all want to contribute something unique, to have an important role, to be valued by others, and students are no exception. If group work is designed to be interdependent, these needs are met, and the resulting positive atmosphere allows learning to take place. As we have noted, productive group work is ultimately about results. It is important to remember, however, that outcomes are not just about task completion. Students who mistakenly think that the only thing the teacher cares about is whether the job is done are missing out on the learning that occurs in the process. Teachers who foster a false dichotomy of complete versus incomplete tasks are overlooking the nuances of what happens inside the mind of learners as they work in tandem with others.
In collaborative work, there is always a tension between two types of learning. Hulse-Killacky, Killacky, and Donigian (2001) describe these as process learning and
content learning. The process questions students are posing to themselves include
- Who am I?
- Who am I with you?
- Who are we together?
And the content questions they are asking include
- What do we have to do?
- What do we need to do to accomplish our goals? (p. 9)
In seeking out the answers to content questions, students have an opportunity to consolidate academic knowledge, but in working out process questions, they gain an understanding of themselves as learners and members of a team. Indeed, an important outcome of productive group work is that learners gain greater metacognitive awareness—that is, self-knowledge of how and when they learn something new.
The key is for students' understanding about themselves to be affirming. They are not going to have a positive picture of themselves as learners if they are not contributors to achieving the group goal. If students realize that they are not full participants, their self-talk is likely to turn negative: I can't do this because I'm too stupid. Fear of failure and embarrassment then creeps into the learning process and can form an invisible barrier. We teachers can't see this roadblock, and our students often cannot or will not articulate what has gotten in their way.
The Neural Basis of Positive Interdependence
Many teachers know of the affective filter hypothesis, which proposes that certain emotions can act as filters in the flow of academic learning. Negative feelings, such as fear and embarrassment, can interfere with a learner's ability to process information. In a psychological equivalent to the physiological fight-or-flight response to a threat, a student who experiences negative emotions during learning will either seek escape or freeze up. Learning still takes place, but it is all directed at the threat itself. On the other hand, students experiencing positive emotions have an improved flow of academic information and a heightened state of learning.
Ongoing neuroscience research also supports the idea that emotions affect learning. Current study of the amygdalae, a pair of almond-shaped neuronal clusters located deep in the temporal lobes of the human brain, suggests that its chief functions are to process learning formed through emotional events (especially fear and reward) and to further consolidate these memories as they move from working memory (short in duration) to long-term (more permanent) memory (Howard, 2006). It is this pathway function of the amygdalae that is important in learning. While the thalamus serves as the sensory pathway to various parts of the brain, the amygdalae similarly process emotionally charged events.
Think of the amygdalae as the revolving door of a busy office building (the brain). People flow in and out of the building all day long and travel to various floors depending on the nature of their business. However, this revolving door is a special one, equipped with a security system that vigilantly watches for any sign of threat. When a danger is perceived, the revolving door locks shut, temporarily stopping the flow of traffic. The revolving door's security system collects data so that it can recognize similar threats in the future, creating a "wanted poster" to remind itself not to be fooled again. Similarly, the revolving door's security system also prioritizes the big shots who might be approaching the entry. Let's say the building owner's name is Mr. Reward. Whenever Mr. Reward is spotted walking up the sidewalk, the revolving door makes sure that he is able to enter the building quickly and is whisked up the elevator to his destination. Mr. Reward's pathway is cleared so that nothing will delay his travel to any place in the building.
Perceived threat interferes with academic learning because attention and memory shift to the negative stimuli. Group work that is structured to create positive interdependence reduces threats and increases a sense of reward. When students engaged in group work answer the process learning questions "Who am I?" and "Who am I with you?" with the answer, "I am a contributor, and we are a team," their level of fear lowers. And when a student anticipates success by answering the content question "What do we have to do?" with "We are figuring out what to do. We are making progress," the pathways open for academic learning. Notice that the reward doesn't have to be external (e.g., grades or praise); learners can intrinsically reward themselves when they experience progress toward an identified goal.
Productive group work can open the doors to learning once students realize that they can rely upon one another to learn complex material. Teachers can foster a sense of positive interdependence by creating tasks that require shared goals, outcomes, and rewards. The esprit de corps that emerges when a group of learners sets goals and collectively experiences success results in gains in their social, emotional, and academic growth.
Instructional Routines That Foster Positive Interdependence
One of the most beneficial aspects of productive group work is that it allows students and teachers to capitalize on the unique skills and capabilities they possess. The naturally occurring variance among learners is often what leads team members to rely upon one another. Heterogeneous grouping may seem to make creating interdependence especially challenging: Each student is more skilled in some ways, less skilled in others. However, these differences do not have to be an impediment; they can become a genuine aid to learning.
Of course, students need help discovering each other's value. Positive interdependence doesn't just happen. Teachers must model and implement routines to promote relationships that encourage rather than inhibit learning. We have found that three instructional routines in particular are useful for fostering interdependence in group work: creating different experiences, using a jigsaw approach, and student-led reciprocal teaching.
One way to ensure that each group member has something unique and valuable to contribute is to give each a different task. Karen Auppelee, who teaches a blended 1st and 2nd grade class at East Oakview Elementary in Northview, Michigan, often sets up different experiences within her lessons to make the most of productive group work and to manage the different readiness levels typical in a multi-age learning scenario. For example, her 1st grade students spent a day with another classroom, while her 2nd grade students went on a field trip to a sculpture garden in a nearby town. The following day, the whole class worked in mixed-age pairs (one 1st grader and one 2nd grader) to compare their experiences through discussion, drawing, and writing. Because each partner possessed information the other did not, they had to engage in real dialogue about the events to complete the tasks. As the discussions progressed, each pair created Venn diagrams of the similarities and differences between their experiences. For example, Natalie and Karen agreed that they "both had yummy lunches" and "hope they can do it again!" Ashley and Zoe noted, "Both of us went outside." Then the groups used the jointly constructed graphic organizer as a basis for their writing assignment. Each set of students collaboratively wrote two or three paragraphs on how they spent their day.
During the partner group work, Ms. Auppelee provided guided instruction and collected assessment information. "I was able to assess their understanding by listening to their discussions and observing how they worked together," she later remarked. "It was evident that learning took place because they were identifying other compare and contrast writings and suggesting other activities that we could do for [this kind] of writing!"
The Jigsaw Approach
Jigsaw is a commonly used method of promoting interdependence (Aronson, Blaney, Sikes, Stephan, & Snapp, 1978). In this approach, a complex learning task is split among group members. Each student is simultaneously a member of two groups: a home group, whose chief goal is to learn the content and complete tasks, and an expert group, which consists of one representative member from each home group. Students meet in their home group to discuss overall goals. Then they meet in their expert group to focus on one specific aspect of the content. After mastering the expert content, each member returns to his or her home group to teach that element to the rest of the group (see Figure 2.1).
Figure 2.1. A Jigsaw Arrangement: Home and Expert Groups
Because the home group's success depends on each member's expertise, it is important to make sure that all students are adequately learning the material so they can share information accurately. Teacher monitoring of the expert groups is critical, especially when the process is new to the class. And ensuring mastery may present a challenge because students are at different readiness levels. On the one hand, a student working below grade level may take a bit longer to learn the content. On the other hand, a student who is already an expert on a topic may become impatient with other members of her group. It may be helpful to assign these more knowledgeable students as group leaders so that they can facilitate the process. Let them know that practicing is an essential part of learning and that it can and should occur. The teacher should also check the accuracy and completeness of each student's learning in the expert group before they return to their home groups. When students of differing abilities feel well supported in a jigsaw arrangement, there is a positive effect on motivation (Shaaban, 2006).
The originator of jigsaw grouping, psychologist Eliot Aronson, had another goal in mind when he came up with the jigsaw method. In his book Nobody Left to Hate, Aronson (2000) describes how in 1971 he and his graduate students devised the jigsaw classroom as a way to defuse the racial tensions present at a school in Austin, Texas, that was the first in the district to desegregate. Learners were given complex tasks that required them to lean on each other in order to be successful. He described one group's realization regarding their treatment of a boy named Carlos, an English learner in their home group, who had just learned about Eleanor Roosevelt in his expert group:
One of my research assistants was observing that group and heard some members of Carlos's group make remarks such as, "Aw, you don't know it, you're dumb, you're stupid." … Instead of admonishing them to "be nice" or "try to cooperate," she made one simple but powerful statement. "Talking like that to Carlos might be fun for you to do, but it's not going to help you learn anything about Eleanor Roosevelt … and the exam will be in about fifteen minutes." (p. 142)
Aronson goes on to explain that "Carlos's groupmates gradually realized that they needed to change their tactics. It was no longer in their best interest to rattle Carlos; he wasn't the enemy—he was on their team" (p. 143).
Although most of our classrooms today do not harbor the same dramatic tensions present in 1971, the marginalization of classmates is still a routine occurrence, as is its consequent negative effect on academic learning. The point isn't that everyone should somehow become friends, but that when students learn that they need one another, they begin to appreciate the strengths others possess.
Interdependence also has valuable long-term social benefits. The ability for people to work productively with others is an adult outcome that predicts whether a person will remain employed. A longitudinal study of over 10,000 high school students 10 years after graduation found that those who had been rated higher by their teachers on the ability to relate to others had achieved a higher level of postsecondary education and higher annual income than those rated lower on social skills, even when controlled for cognitive skills (Lieras, 2008).
It's worth noting that jigsaw's home group work mirrors the multidisciplinary work that is the hallmark of many professional fields, including medicine, law, education, and business. At one time or another, all of us have been members of a work group assembled to achieve a complex goal, with members selected because each possesses specialized knowledge about a particular aspect of the problem. In these situations, no one member is expected to come up with the solution; it's assumed the solution will arise from the interaction of the whole group. In the classroom, as in the adult work world, jigsawing can foster both individual expertise and interdependence, as members come together to create a new solution.
Student-Led Reciprocal Teaching
Another way teachers can encourage positive interdependence is through reciprocal teaching, or asking group members to assume specific roles when considering a problem. As working adults, we participate in reciprocal teaching each time we gather to plan how to complete a project. After analyzing the task, we discuss what must be done and figure out who will do what. Similarly, reciprocal teaching requires students to work together to achieve a task-related goal. Together, they learn that "sometimes there are several different ways of saying the same thing and that there are many right answers to the same question" (Palincsar, Ransom, & Derber, 1988/1989, p. 38).
The interactive instructional process known as reciprocal teaching is often used in group work focusing on reading comprehension. The group task is to reach an understanding of a text, and each of the four group members is assigned a role that matches a comprehension strategy: generating questions, summarizing content, clarifying key points, and making predictions about what the author will discuss next. The group discusses the text with each student contributing based on his or her role. Every member of the group is expected to participate and, in fact, needs to participate in order for the group to construct meaning. Students may find task cards helpful as reminders of how to fulfill their role in discussion. Here are some examples of role prompts:
- Ask a question that can be answered in the text (a Right There or Think and Search question).
- Ask an opinion question (Do you agree? What do you think?).
- Show your teammates where you find answers.
- Ask if anyone got stuck on a word or an idea.
- Help your teammates by using resources. Try rereading first.
- If the person is stuck on a word, try the glossary or dictionary.
- If these don't work, ask for help from the teacher.
- Tell your teammates what you think the author will tell you about in the next section.
- Show your teammates the clues you noticed in the passage.
- Tell your teammates the main idea of the passage and the important supporting details.
- Make sure your summary isn't longer than the reading!
Reciprocity of teaching and learning is vital to this instructional routine and is an important aspect for the teacher to model. Initially, teachers demonstrate each comprehension strategy. Using a think-aloud technique (Davey, 1983) that allows teachers to make their thinking explicit as they make sense of a passage is effective. For example, teachers read a paragraph aloud and then talk about the questions that occur to them as they read. This technique shows that all readers ask questions of themselves during the reading process. Students then take turns assuming the role of the teacher as they lead their small group in conversation about the text. Over time— Palincsar, Ransom, and Derber (1988/1989) recommend about 20 lessons—students are equipped to engage in reciprocal teaching within productive work groups. Teachers may assign roles, or the groups may do so themselves. In our experience, as groups become more comfortable with the discussion process, they become increasingly comfortable assuming different roles, resulting in further consolidation of sound reading comprehension and monitoring strategies.
Inside Three Classrooms
As we mentioned in Chapter 1, four types of interdependence can be built into group work: goal, resource, reward, and role. The following classroom examples show how some of the routines discussed can link students in learning and what kinds of positive interdependence these routines create.
Ms. Allen, Elementary School Science
You may recall that Ms. Aida Allen taught the same students from kindergarten through the 5th grade. When her students were in 4th grade, she introduced them to reciprocal teaching. For several weeks, her students worked on learning the different strategy roles used in reading comprehension group work. For instance, Ms. Allen would model a role, such as clarifying, during whole-class focus lessons and then follow up with guided reading instruction to further refine students' skills. As students became more skilled with each role, she began to combine different roles to build their capacity for sustaining the discussion. After students had mastered generating questions and summarizing, Ms. Allen had them use both to read a short piece of text. "It's about building stamina," she remarked. "I want them to get comfortable with doing more on their own."
After the several weeks of practice, Ms. Allen felt that her students were ready to tackle reciprocal teaching in small groups. One day, in science, she assigned them to groups of four, with a member responsible for each role: questioning, clarifying, summarizing, and predicting. Groups were given a passage on decomposers that complemented information found in their science textbook. Ms. Allen segmented the reading into shorter passages, and the students knew they were to have a discussion at the end of each segment. In case they got stuck, she put task tent cards that listed prompting questions for each role on each group's table.
Here's what happened in one group:
Tino: OK, I'll go first. I'm the summarizer, so I'm supposed to say the main idea. So here goes. The main idea is that when plants and animals die, they get decomposed. That means they get eaten by stuff, and they turn into soil. And the stuff is bacteria, or fungi, or earthworms.
Miriam: I'm supposed to ask a question. Do earthworms decompose plants or animals?
Tino: They eat plants and animals.
Miriam: Right! It says right here [points to text]: "Earthworms decompose dead plants and animals."
Adriana: Ask a harder question, Miriam.
Miriam: OK. What do you think would happen if there weren't any decomposers?
This question sparked a lively conversation that went on for several minutes as the group debated what the Earth might be like if everything that ever died was still in its original form. This notion had not occurred to them before, and they were quite delighted to speculate about general living conditions and the difficulty of getting around all the dead stuff. This speculation prompted Romel, the clarifier, to ask a question of his own:
Romel: That's something I don't understand. How could everything that ever died be turned just into dirt? Wouldn't we be under piles and piles of dirt?
Tino: You're the clarifier. How can we find the answer?
Tino rechecked his role card and decided that they needed to ask the teacher. They called Ms. Allen over and presented Romel's question to her. She asked the group if it was possible that they might find the answer to their question in subsequent passages.
Adriana: Oh yeah, that's my job. I forgot about it! Maybe we thought of that question like the author did. At the end of the third paragraph, it says, "Decomposers are an important part of the web of life because without them there would be no plant life. Without plant life, other organisms would no longer exist."
As the group continued to read and discuss the assigned passage, they discovered that decomposers play an important role in passing on energy.
This productive group work demonstrated both role interdependence and goal interdependence. Each student understood and carried out a unique role in completing the task, and each student had to contribute to achieve the group goal of understanding the text. The group also learned about each other's thinking as they analyzed the text and monitored their understanding. This was an early attempt at reciprocal teaching for Ms. Allen's students; the routine became a regularly featured one in her classroom as they tackled informational reading.
Ms. Vogel, Middle School Humanities
The students in Kathy Vogel's 7th grade humanities class were studying the countries of the eastern hemisphere as part of their yearlong study of world cultures. Ms. Vogel knew that a requirement of her state's standards was for students to plan and deliver focused and coherent informational presentations. To combine their research with this standard, she assigned a project in which partners had to collaborate to write and deliver an interview modeled on the television show Larry King Live.
First, the class watched and analyzed portions of several broadcasts to determine the elements of a strong interview; they then composed a rubric to be used with their own projects. Ms. Vogel then modeled with a student an interview she had written. Working from a script, she interviewed a representative from the Tengiz Oil and Gas Refinery in Kazakhstan to highlight information about the physical and economic features of the country. "I realize the importance of modeling meaningful interview questions," Ms. Vogel commented. "Particularly the importance of showing students how to make decisions about what to ask."
The modeling that accompanied this interview project was designed to show students how she utilized her background knowledge and understanding of the task to share her ideas with a partner. The project lent itself to overall positive interdependence (the development and performance of an interview), but Ms. Vogel also made sure that students were individually accountable for the script they developed. She visited each team throughout the script research and writing phase of the project, discussing the viewpoints each partner would be representing during the interview. In addition, she gave students individual grades based on the quality of information furnished by the character each portrayed in the presentation. Ms. Vogel's continued presence throughout the development of the project ensured that each team member was contributing to the overall process.
Student partners brainstormed a list of people, issues, and events related to their assigned regions. Eric and Dave were assigned Israel, and they chose to interview a representative of the Israeli government about the ongoing conflict in the region. Their scripted interview began with a discussion of the formation of Israel after World War II and established the basis for the modern conflict. At one point in their interview, this exchange took place:
Eric (as Larry King): This conflict has been going on for a long time, so when do you think this conflict will end?
Dave (as an Israeli government official): Well, being a religious man, I believe this conflict will end once both sides suffer even greater losses and realize they can no longer pay the price for their hatred. This will probably require forces and events that are beyond anything one man can accomplish.
Eric: What will this conflict's lasting significance be?
Dave: Thousands of bright and intelligent people who could have added help to the world have been killed because of this.
The collaborative work between partners to research, compose, rehearse, and perform their interviews fostered a strong level of positive interdependence. Because they had a vested interest in a successful performance, partners helped each other to master the material and concepts.
Mr. Gibbs, High School Social Studies
During each unit of study in Brian Gibbs's American history class, student groups regularly examine historical figures by creating a character analysis for each and participating in a character seminar. For example, at the beginning of their unit on the 10 Cold War presidents, each group was assigned a president and challenged to become an expert on that president's life and administration. Over the next few weeks, the groups learned about their president, such as how he made America safe, his character and leadership style, important choices and decisions he made, and the historical context in which he served. Each member of a group received a prepared packet of different research material, including copies of primary source documents, book excerpts, and articles about the assigned president. This created
resource interdependence, as students had to study their individual packets and then present what they gleaned to the other members of their group. Each member's input was necessary for the group to develop a complete picture of the president.
In addition to doing an in-depth analysis of their assigned president, each group was required to do a more abbreviated character analysis of the other nine Cold War presidents, based on information gathered from a variety of resources and activities. The "Walk and Talk" activity was a particularly good example of positive interdependence. Students created a graphic organizer and then filled it with information about each president, such as important events in the president's life, key contributions he made in a specific area (e.g., civil rights), and major problems or criticisms he faced during his term in office. Their sources for this information were peers outside their own expert groups. Essentially, the activity consisted of students going up to one another and engaging in a process of "you tell me about your president and I'll tell you about mine." Mr. Gibbs, listening to these conversations, was able to get a good idea of what students knew and what they didn't know yet. Students' completed graphic organizers provided a starting point for further focused reading to support a one-page character analysis of each president.
And at the end of the unit, each group demonstrated their learning by presenting their president in a character seminar and answering questions about their president posed by the rest of the students in the class. This seminar, like all Mr. Gibbs's character seminars, was predominantly student directed, with him stepping in to facilitate only when needed.
Groups prepared for the seminar by reviewing materials together, quizzing each other, and rehearsing responses to likely questions. Every team member had to master the content and be prepared to answer questions. Group members were also responsible for developing high-quality, relevant questions about the other nine presidents, with each group member required to contribute at least two questions for each president. This seminar format created goal interdependence, as group members and whole groups pushed one another to analyze, evaluate, and defend their assigned president. How well the team performed depended on every member's knowledge and understanding of their president as well as the quality of the questions they posed to classmates on the other teams.
Because individual as well as group performance was assessed, students experienced
reward interdependence. Teams were evaluated using a rubric that included criteria about the thoroughness of their character analyses, the accuracy of their responses during the seminar, the quality of the questions they posed, and the balance of contributions from individual group members. Because Mr. Gibbs's students went on to participate in a number of character seminars throughout the year, the rubric also enabled them to measure their growth and progress on the various criteria over time.