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Character Education

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Digital Learning

Collaborative Groups That Work

"It's not a wedding! It's a twenty minute group! You can do this!"
Quoting myself here - it's what I've always told my third, fourth,  and fifth graders when it's time to work in groups! Because I have no filter, I often continue with statements like: "Wouldn't I be more dressed up if we were having a wedding here?", "Where's the band? Where are the flowers?", and on and on. This fun stand-up routine has been repeated for years as I've encouraged boys and girls to work together in the same group. Strangely, if you teach long enough (as I have!), you do hear of the occasional wedding between former students. Hmmm.... and to think it all started.....

So how can we make collaborative groups that work? Groups where all feel comfortable, all continue to learn while staying on task, and all contribute to the outcome? Since our brains love novelty, I think collaborative groups work best for upper elementary students if they are at least a little different each time. Viewing collaborative groups as a science/psychology/sociology investigation (three subjects close to my heart), what works for me is changing the variables.

The variables I look at in group work are: people, task, materials, and method.

  • People, of course, is your most important variable. No one wants to work with people who make them feel uncomfortable or underqualified for the task, but elementary students often need just a little nudge to try out some new arrangements.  
          Some ways to help students find their groups:

                    Playing cards are an easy choice! Just select as many cards as
                    you have students, with an equal number of each suit.  Ask
                    students to randomly select a card and find group members
                    with the other three suits.
                    Another playing card trick is to place 4 of the "2" cards, 4 of
                    the "3" cards, etc. face down on a table and mixed. Students
                    who draw a two card will work together, the threes will work
                    together, and so on.

                   You might also try having students count off by the number
                   of groups you would like to have. Then all students with the
                   same number would form a group.

        Of course (and I couldn't get to this fast enough), you might also
       want to let students choose their own groups. Sometimes. Not
       always. As a surprise. Because....Yay! I get to work with my friends!
       Don't we all like to work with our friends?

  • The task is important. Not all tasks lend themselves to cooperative groups. Many do, however, and will give students opportunities to make those interpersonal skills blossom. I don't use the assigned roles practice, although I have the utmost respect for those who do. It just seems unnatural to me. I believe if the  task is motivating, servant leadership will kick in, and everyone in the group will want to take part.  
                Make sure the task is motivating, and all  will want to take part
                in the work. Some very motivating and student-approved tasks
                can be found at the end of this post!
                Allow some time at the beginning for students to share their
                thoughts on the task and to decide how the work should be
                divided. I promise they will surprise you with their responsibility
                and creativity!

               Make sure the task is structured for individual accountability as
               well as group. Including an individual journal, performance
               assessment, or presentation piece due at completion will help
               with accountability.

  • Materials are another important piece to cooperative work. They should be easy to locate and use in your classroom, or easily found at home. Students will need to have the materials right there, or to have a list so they know what is expected of them as they work.  You should also be clear about whether substitutions or additions are welcome with this particular task. Fun materials to use can be very motivating for the "maker" inside each of us!
Simple materials: plastic cup, gummy worms, paper clips, but lean-in motivating!
  • Method is the final point I like to think about when planning for cooperative groups. Is your task based on problem-solving that requires lots of discussion? Is it a task where students will complete their own piece and then bring it back to the group? Is it a task where all will dive into the materials and work on it shoulder to shoulder? Is it a process where the group will meet and discuss and then disband with an assignment for further investigation (the way book clubs tend to go)? 
          These are important points to consider, and when you spot a
          group showing exactly the behaviors you have been hoping for,
          it's time to spotlight that. I like to have a "fishbowl" demo
          in between group work times and let others observe the process of
          a successful group.
          Form a fishbowl by placing the demo group in a circle in the
         center, and all other students in a circle around them. Students in
         the fishbowl go through a portion of their group session and stop.
         Students in the outer circle then offer a "star" (compliment) and a
         "wish" (something they'd like to know more about).
         Observing the group process and listening to stars and wishes
         make for a powerful lesson in how groups work rather than having
         the teacher explain over and over.

If you're looking for some group tasks for your third through sixth graders, you may be interested in some of these. Just click on the images to learn more!



  1. I love the playing cards idea for group assignments! I totally agree that students shouldn't be able to always chose their own groups. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Such clever ideas here. Your information is so helpful. Thank you.