Having students work in groups can help make the most of the precious time they spend in the classroom. Every student is ensured a chance of practising the language, negotiating meaning and benefiting from the knowledge and expertise of their fellow classmates (in addition to the teacher’s).
The latest issue of English Teaching professional (Issue 121) was one that celebrated collaboration: the whys and the hows of getting students to work together. The last feature ‘Not Only But Also’ in this issue not only explored the different skills we could be nurturing in order to help our students work better as a team, but also looked at what we as teachers and trainers can do to help develop these valuable team-working skills in our students.
The first step would be to move students away from the ‘Teacher Talks – Student Listens’ model of traditional teaching and provide practical opportunities for the individuals to work in groups. A model like that of Flipped Learning will give students ample practice in teamwork and collaboration, and in doing so, improve their teamwork skills.
However, simply getting students to work in groups isn’t always enough. The quality of the work they are doing in their groups can make a huge difference to the skills they are honing. Getting them to check their answers to a gap-fill exercise in groups isn’t necessarily going to help them work on their negotiating skills or their conflict management skills (unless the students really disagree violently about their gap-fill answers … but my students don’t normally have such conviction over their gap-fills).
So what kind of tasks can we get students doing in groups so as to improve their teamwork skills? (If you’re unsure about Task-Based Learning or would like to know a useful criteria for picking tasks, try reading this post before continuing.)
Tasks that have students interacting
This might seem obvious. After all, we language teachers often use group tasks to provide speaking practice (fluency or otherwise) and games to inject a sense of fun in those interactions. But not all group tasks or games necessarily encourage interaction. You only have to watch two people playing chess or putting a jigsaw together to understand that collaboration does not equate interaction.
The task needs to require some form of interaction so that students can not only get language practice but also learn to work as a team. Interaction can take place in order for students to firstly, organise their roles within the group in order to perform the task and/or secondly, provide their input for the task.
Tasks that have students working silently on their own can certainly be of value to their learning process, but might not benefit their team-working skills the way an interactive task can. So instead of asking students to each take a corner of a poster and write down their favourite English language movie, have them get together to decide on the top five best English language movies of all time.
Tasks that bind teammates together with a clear purpose
The task might lead to many opportunities for teamwork but students sometimes simply don’t have the motivation to participate actively in it. One team member shouts out the possible answers to the task and the rest passively agree. The task ends up falling flat on its face.
By giving students a common purpose, we can give them a reason to care about the task and to work with their teammates to produce the best results. This can be done by giving the team a real world consequence to the task e.g. planning a real-life class party, producing a class blog; or appealing to their competitive streak and turning the task into a competition between teams.
Tasks that get students trusting each other
It is no surprise that many people think of a Trust Fall when thinking of team-building activities. If you’re unfamiliar with the Trust Fall, it basically involves one team member standing on a raised platform and falling backwards, relying on the rest of their team to catch them when they fall. Teams that work well together are teams that trust each other. But how can our students learn to build trust and rapport with one another?
Consider tasks that have learners sharing personal stories or information about themselves with their team. This could be a game of ‘Tell three stories and through a series of questions, your group has to guess which one is a lie.’ Or it could be a ‘Show and Tell’ where group mates have to choose a photo from their mobile phone to share with their group.
Alternatively, tasks that involved each learner getting a different input can also serve to build trust. A popular version of this is Jigsaw Reading, where students are given different parts of a text to read. They then have to relate what they’d read to their group and piece together the information they individually have. In a variation to the Jigsaw Reading, I used to play my class a music video and have one learner sit with their back facing the screen. The other group mates then had to tell the ‘blind’ learner what they were seeing on the screen.
Tasks that encourages active participation from all members
Some of my students seem to measure the success of a task according to how fast they can complete it, and in a language classroom, that usually spells long periods of group silence (See point 1 above).
Tasks that have all team members giving their opinion and participating actively in a task can create an interactive learning atmosphere and have students more emotionally and psychologically invested in the task.
One way to do this is to encourage Participative Leadership. Have the leaders of each team act as a facilitator and ensure that they invite each team member to share their ideas and their thoughts. The best way to do this is to start by modeling it as a teacher.
Tasks that get students contributing their individual skills
Some students are better at drawing and some are better at organising. Some are gregarious born leaders and some are introverts. Tasks that allow students to excel at what they do best can not only help build confidence, but can also help students demonstrate their value to the team in a productive, (but not boastful) way.
Project-like tasks, e.g. having students research, plan and present the best design and layout for a school, provide opportunities for different students to shine in their own unique way.
Tasks that gets students taking on new roles
While it is important for students to take on roles and contribute in ways they are comfortable with, students should also have the chance to discover new ways of being in a group. Nominate potential leaders whom you think might be too shy to put themselves forward (but would excel in the role), appoint a Devil’s Advocate in each group so that group members are constantly challenged, or have students take on the responsibility of teaching other students certain things.
Alternatively, consider using Edward de Bono’s Six Hats and assign each member of the group a new coloured hat with each task so that they are pushed into a new way of looking at things.
Tasks that get students negotiating
Students can get practice of their influencing skills when they are put in positions where they have to be persuasive. This might involve getting them to sell an imaginary product, a concept or a point of view to the others in a group. Raise the stakes and make the consequence of the negotiation tangible by, e.g. stating that the group has to present a unified opinion/decision to the class.
Class debates are often useful tools for practising one’s persuasion skills. You can make it more interesting by getting students to argue for the team that they’d naturally disagree with. This encourages them to see things from the other’s point of view.
Tasks that get students solving problems
There are few things that bond people more than when they are fighting a common enemy. This enemy may be an infuriating real-world problem or a perplexing puzzle brought in by a teacher.
Whether you are having students using their collective abilities to try and escape a room, work out how to edit a video for YouTube, or fight for greener efforts in the school, the practice they get at team problem-solving will build invaluable life skills that will benefit them beyond the language classroom.
Tasks that value creativity and innovation
Embrace tasks that enable learners to engage their creativity and produce something in collaboration with their group – this could be a short film, a poem, or a figurative dance piece for the class. However, creative tasks don’t always have to be something arty. They could also include producing a week’s lunch menu ideas for the school, top suggestions for a class outing, or innovative ways to solve a problem that their classmates face everyday.
Work in opportunities for team mates to brainstorm and voice their ideas, no matter how seemingly small or mundane. This can increase the overall creativity of the group and reduce inhibitions of the individual members.
Tasks that bring out diversity and different perspectives
When working in groups, it is, of course, important for students to learn about unity and working together harmoniously. That being said, by the nature of people working together, it is inevitable that there will be differences in opinions, perspectives and communication style.
Dealing with disagreement and conflict is part of working as a team, and it is vital that they learn to see things from different points of views, talk about difficult issues and handle emotionally trying scenarios. By opening talking and reflecting on how we handle such situations can help students better understand how they can manage the tougher aspects of teamwork.
When you next consider using group tasks in the classroom, have a think about these ten task types. Which of these categories might your tasks fall into? Perhaps you have a task that allows for all, or the majority of the, ten types to take place. However many task types you cover, we’d love to hear about them! Please share your tasks with us in the comment field below and tell us what skills you find your students practising when engaged in these tasks.