Saturday, 19 January 2008

Triumphs and tribulations of class groupwork

We have almost completed a unit where students worked in small groups to create a wiki to tell our soon arriving guests from Singapore about Finland. It was the first time I ever tried using Wikispaces in class.

I wanted to have a practise run with only my own students first, before the launch of my first ever international wiki-project next month. In my experience, Wikispaces was very user-friendly, and the students soon got the hang of it without lengthy demonstrations. For a non-tech teacher like myself, tools like this are invaluable in learning to embed some technology in my classroom practises. I had invited each student to join our wikispaces by email, and then guided them not to try and save their work exactly at the same time with another student working on the same page. Only once did one group get their work stalled, and had to restart.

However, what I wasn't too happy with was the performance of some of my students. Apparently, working in small groups presents unsurmountable problems for some for them. First of all, there is the process of group forming - agonising to some. Some researchers
recommend that the teacher should do this for them, making sure that each group has as even a distribution of boys and girls and different abilites as possible. If I ask students, the most vocal of them will quickly shout out that they want to form the groups themselves, which then leaves the few odd, quiet, shy and nerdy people sitting uncomfortably alone staring at the ceiling. Random selection would probably not lead to the best result either. Taking all this into account, this time I decided to let every pair of students sitting together join some others, but demanded, however, that each group must have both boys and girls. With a little bit of discreet help from me, in the end groups were formed fairly easily.

Next, it's the crucial planning phase of their work. As could be expected, some groups quickly thought of separate subtasks for each member and then went on working individually. They seemed to be happy enough, but I wouldn't call this groupwork.

Some students even put the headphones on to listen
to music and effectively cut themselves off from
the other students around them.

Even after I coached them at the beginning of the next class to consider the benefits of sharing their ideas, brainstorming, combining their strengths and weaknesses to achieve something more than each of them could manage individually, these adamant youngsters wouldn't budge. Probably a personality trait again, but also the result of our highly individualised school culture, where you only learn for yourself, you design your own learning paths, and you choose the courses and classes that you consider personally beneficial. I have noticed that especially many of the highest achieving and most intelligent students are often the keenest to work on their own, as if they arrogantly didn't want to lower themselves to sharing their knowledge with those who aren't in the same league with them. This is probably a rather misguided generalisation, but that's the impression I get, sadly.

Fortunately, to my delight, there were also the groups who worked well together from the beginning, made their plans together, worked together the whole time, decided on homework together and, I must admit, created more original products than the others. What's more, they quite noticably had more fun in class than the other groups. To me this is clear proof that genuine groupwork and sharing ideas with others as soundingboards does pay off. I've only got to think of a concrete and convincing way to try and share this insight with the whole class, so that the reticent others might get it, too.

All this makes me think more and more about the importance of developing students' social skills in our schools. True, teenage years are a traumatic time for many, but still, we teachers shouldn't just let students mope around and exist quietly in their own worlds well hidden behind their long head of hair, should we? Naturally, we can't expect everybody to be a suave centre of attention, but with little steps and gentle guidance even the most reserved and frightened youngsters might start coming out of their shells a little bit.

On the whole, it was a pleasure to be a teacher - actually a facilitator and guide! - in these classes. There wasn't a sign of the frequent passive yawning atmosphere of traditional language classes. Everybody was busy working (although I did catch some incorrigible slackers on messenger or playing games a few times!), lots of questions were flying about, more tech-savvy students helped others (even me when I got confused!), and, most importantly from the language learning perspective, they were really involved in using the foreign language for a purpose, not just to fill in gaps in a ready-made exercise. Students have got one more week to fine-tune their work on the wiki until next Thursday, when all the groups will orally present their pages and we will do the final evaluation of the unit. The finished pages, which will be qualitatively very heterogeneous, should be viewable online then.


tolerant educator said...

Try combining them by colour of clothes /(shades of black, no doubt!)or using ribbons; in my experience even adults tolerate grouping in this random method.
Then 'long haired boys'; how can you tell, if as your accomapnying pic shows, they're 'hoodies'? Perhaps you could match them one hood to one non hood (presumably a girl?)! - or even cap, I see: (don't you have a policy to insist they respectfully remove such hedagear, though?! :-))
Respect though to a fellow 'facillitator/guide': a more realistic/honest assessment of today's young adult teachers

sinikka said...

Thank you for your tips, tolerant educator! As I wrote in my post, there are pros and cons in all these ways to form groups.
And yes, indeed, we do have a rule that BOYS are not supposed to wear headgear in class. However, as I'm more interested in what goes on inside their heads than what they wear on it, I hardly pay attention to this. Let alone the fact how outdated such sexist dress codes are!