THE PRAISE MODEL PART 5: Structuring Social Interaction
Updated: Oct 6, 2021
I have called this part ‘structured social interaction’ because I feel it describes the dynamics of group work better than the term ‘group work’.
I can remember feeling quite pleased with my planning, as an NQT, when I could show an inspector that I had differentiated three ways in my lessons, and that I had three groups focussed on work targeted to their abilities. I had the students sitting in groups and was delighted with their behaviour during an inspection when you could hear a pin drop as they quietly got on with their work.
If you had asked me, I would have pointed to them as an example of group work in my classroom. Group A, I would have said, is the top group, and they are busy with a task suited to their abilities. Group B is the middle ability group and they are all involved with an exercise that matched their capabilities. I would even have told you that they were working well because they were working quietly.
And you probably would have told me, as did the inspector, that there is no such thing as quiet group work.
“How,” the inspector asked, “are the individuals within each group learning about the dynamics of group work? How are they developing listening and negotiating skills? How are they learning to deal with compromise and understanding how to be an effective team member?”
He listed a host of other essential skills that could be enriched through active group work and it dawned on me that, while I had planned to differentiate according to ability, it was just on the level of content. I had not planned to develop the personal skills of my students nor given them sufficient opportunity to understand each other as learners.
(I also realised that I should be giving them work that was slightly above their supposed ability level, so that they could be stretched and challenged.)
After that inspection, I began to look differently at how I planned lessons and which is why I now prefer the term ‘structuring social interaction’. It is not just a good definition of group work, it also provides 3 useful elements that inform planning:
This refers to there being set phases that the groups engage in during their time together. For example, I gave a group of year 11 students the task of deciding whether or not a video clip I had shown them could be seen as a factual event or one that was manufactured / staged. The video was about two minutes.
The group’s task was to watch the video through in silence first, then to watch it again but this time jot down interesting questions that arise, and then they would each take turns sharing their questions with the group. This was done in a circle time format – so each person in the group had a turn to share questions. The group did not have to answer during this phase – just listen.
The next phase allowed each person to provide his/her point of view and to substantiate it with a clear reason. Because of the circle time format, nobody was allowed to interrupt the speaker or pass judgement on what was said. Instead, each person had the opportunity to share a point of view.
Once all points of view were expressed, the group then had to decide on which point of view was the most convincing, based on the quality of the reasoning.
The phases they were involved in were:
· Think and Question
· Share and Listen
· Evaluate and Report.
Having a clear structure to follow (whatever the structure may be) allows for groups to stay focussed and have a sense of purpose. Having safe routines within that structure – i.e. circle time formats – ensure that students feel their opinions have value and worth.
A handy structure when planning group work, then, is simply:
· First, they will ...
· Then, they will ...
· After that, they will ...
· Finally, they will ...
It is also important for students to be made aware of the structure of their group task, and in some cases it may also be prudent to provide timing guidelines for each of the phases.
This refers to the need to ensure that all group work develops individuals-within-teams skills.
Once way to begin this is to get students in each group to establish rules of conduct for that group.
a. Agree on Rules of Conduct
A poster which had a dramatic effect on the attitudes of some of my students read:
You don’t ever have to respect my opinion – you need only respect my right to express my opinion.
One of the functions of group work is to allow students to learn to disagree, to accept others’ points of view without condemnation. That is why I like the circle time format, which allows everyone to have his/her say without being interrupted or shouted down.
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of circle time, here is a brief summation: Circle Time is when a group sits in a circle and uses a ‘talking stick’ to indicate who has the right to speak. Nobody is allowed to interrupt someone or talk out of turn. If they do, they are asked to leave the circle. The circle talks in rounds – i.e. each person takes his/her turn to speak before passing the ‘talking stick’ to the next person, until everyone has had a go.
So, I might read a sample of a student’s writing and ask the group to
· Share what they most liked about the piece of writing (round 1)
· Suggest a way that it can be made even better (round 2).
b. Agree on criteria for effective group work
Another way to develop social skills is to get the group to agree on what makes effective group work and to write their decisions down so that they can refer to them to assess their effectiveness as a group.
I like to get groups to agree on the criteria for a 5 Star group rating at the start of the year. For example, what is 1-star group work as opposed to 4 stars? The students record their decisions on a poster and at the end of each session, they rate themselves according to the star rating system they had agreed upon.
One of the benefits of this system is watching groups re-evaluate their concept of effective group work as the year goes on. Often, their 4 or 5 star criteria become more focussed and accurate as they get more and more used to the process of reflecting and assessing the quality of their interaction.
c. Agree on trouble-shooting strategies
By this I mean, getting students to consider how to respond to situations when they fail to reach agreement, or someone isn’t pulling his weight, or it's apparent one or two people tend to dominate conversations or refuse to co-operate.
Students can record their decisions in a little trouble-shooting guidebook, which is used whenever conflict arises and needs to be resolved.
By getting students to think about these issues, and to agree on ways to deal with them, helps them to become more responsible group members and to take ownership of the group work process.
d. Rotate assigned roles
Sometimes it is useful to assign roles to students in groups.
This means that one student will be the writer, one will be the reporter, one will be the researcher, one will be the referee, and one will be the time-keeper. These roles can be recorded on cards, and students can refer to them to remind themselves of their roles and responsibilities.
Roles can also be more complex. For example, one person can be the 'devil's advocate', whose job is to politely challenge the opinions of others to ensure their arguments are valid and sound. Another can be the 'extender', whose role is to build and extend upon the ideas of others.
Rotating the responsibilities is crucial, as is building in opportunity for their evaluations of those roles. For example, if person X is the ‘reporter’, how effectively did he/she report on the group’s findings? How can he/she do better in that role next time?
Group work will be noisy. That doesn’t mean loud, it means individuals within groups will be talking with each other, negotiating, agreeing, disagreeing and sharing points of view. This means, when planning, we should allow for tasks that foster speaking and listening skills.
Problem-solving activities, by their very nature, incorporate a range of essential personal skills as well as providing opportunity for groups to feel good about themselves for solving a particular problem.
i) The Reflective Observer
One way that you can get students to focus on how they interact, is to get one of them to sit away from the group, making notes about observations. This means that one member of the group will not be involved in the group task but will, in effect, act like a living camera, observing and capturing how the group went about its task, then providing feedback to the group about what was observed.
The observer may record:
· How the group went about its given task
· The questions that group members asked each other
· The quality of the interaction
· The events that took place – i.e. who spoke first, who spoke after that?
ii) Assigning Traits
One technique which I was sceptical of at first because of its potential for abuse, but which surprised me by its effectiveness – is to get the observer to label each member of the group as a particular animal, based on their behaviour and thought patterns as they went about the task.
At first, I was worried that some students would resort to nastiness . Yet, whenever I assigned this task to students, their observations were acute and accurate. Although there is the potential for people to abuse this activity, I can happily report that I have yet to witness it. Instead, the students’ candour is more constructive than damaging, and is often quite amusing in a non-threatening way.
iii) Moving Markers
Another idea which I found useful for promoting interaction between members of a group is the idea of having moving markers. A moving marker is an agreed object that individuals place in front of them around a table/ group. So a sharpener may be an example of a moving marker. The marker is placed in front of a person and the closer it is to that person, the more that person feels part of the group. If the marker is placed away from the person, towards the centre of the table/ group, then that indicates that the person does not feel very involved in the proceedings.
This technique allows for teachers and group leaders to instantly see the level of interaction between members of a group. This means that the group leader may deliberately try to involve that person more by asking questions or inviting opinions.
If you have any ideas that would like to share regarding social interaction or talk for learning, feel free to comment below.
In my next post, I shall discuss the impact of providing praise for continuous improvement.