Group Work Key for 21st-Century Skills

Employers are looking for workers who have the ability to collaborate successfully with others. Yet, in the classroom, it is difficult for teachers to limit their control over academics and allow students to work in groups.

Traditionally, group work in school was not always successful. Group projects assigned for homework were returned completed by parents or by one student while others earned credit for work they did not do.

How can teachers manage effective groups?

Peek into Mrs. Simone-Jia’s classroom. She teaches fifth grade in a middle-class urban setting. Her 24 students come from a wide range of backgrounds and ability levels. Two students are English language learners, and one, Anna, is wheelchair-bound with mild learning differences. Anna has a full-time paraprofessional who accompanies her through her day. In many ways Mrs. Simone-Jia teaches a typical group of students.

Mrs. Simone–Jia is well aware of the need for young people to gain 21st-century skills. Part of this preparation is learning to work together effectively in groups, so she carefully organizes projects to encourage this development.

Preparation before group work begins

Teachers at Mrs. Simone-Jia’s school engage in Professional Learning Communities to create units of study that meet 21st-century standards. The units are living documents that continually develop as the students change and as the teachers gather more resources. Each unit contains core content that must be mastered before students set off to apply their learning in small groups.

The current unit is a study of interdependence. It is a science-based study that blends biological concepts with social studies content on war. Students are also expected to use their mathematical knowledge of fractions, ratios, and percentages as they investigate information.

While content from standards is presented to the class in a more traditional way, students also make note of specific questions they have about the content and its relation to larger world issues. True to inquiry units, students continually wonder and collect personal questions related to the content. This gives learners an opportunity to research concepts and questions that are important and connect with core learning.

Detailing information to each group

Before the inquiry project begins, Mrs. Simone-Jia has already developed a grading rubric that details general expectations for the finished project. Content findings, connection of information to other disciplines, as well as the mechanics of writing and presentation skills are predetermined. Timelines are established that help guide the inquiry.

Later in the year, Mrs. Simone-Jia will develop these final rubrics with the class. But now she wants to give students an opportunity to experience an inquiry project before giving the class the freedom to establish criteria for the final project.

Before groups begin their projects, Mrs. Simone-Jia also establishes guidelines for effective group process and explains to students why group process is an important part of the learning process and a valuable 21st-century skill.

Teacher activity during group work

While the groups are working, Mrs. Simone-Jia carefully observes from afar. She checks to be sure students get off to a solid start. When she notices one student “taking charge” and attempting to single-handedly direct all activity, she steps in and gently reminds students that they must all work together to investigate the issues. This redirection comes after she has discussed individually with this student why it is important for every voice to be heard.

In another group, Mrs. Simone-Jia notices there is too much silence. The group seems to be struggling getting started. Mrs. Simone-Jia steps closer to the group and silently listens in while the group hesitantly begins again to discuss the issues. Her presence has served to jump-start the conversation. When she notices this, she nods her head in agreement when a student suggests an idea Mrs. Simone-Jia believes will lead the group in a positive direction.

Another group is working well together and developing many ideas and directions for learning, but Mrs. Simone-Jia notices that one of the members has been silent from the start. Instead of talking to the silent member, Mrs. Simone-Jia speaks to the most vocal members and reminds them to include everyone’s ideas. She asks if the group had invited ideas from everyone.

Mrs. Simone-Jia asks one of the members, “What do you think about this topic, Kyrianna?” As Kyrianna responds to Mrs. Simone-Jia, the teacher motions to Kyrianna to speak to the group and not to her. The group gets the idea, and someone asks Lydia, the silent member, what she thinks about the topic. As the group begins to consider the ideas of the silent member, Mrs. Simone-Jia backs away and allows the group to continue without her assistance.

Mrs. Simone-Jia monitors the work of special learners to ensure they are engaged in the process as well as the content. Mrs. Simone-Jia also speaks to Anna’s paraprofessional privately to reinforce expectations for Anna to take an active role during group work.

Building toward career readiness

Educators can play an important role in preparing students for the future. By guiding her class through group work, Mrs. Simone-Jia’s students will be better prepared for 21st-century careers.

Managers are looking for employees who work together effectively to create innovative solutions to problems. Under the care of teachers who systematically help build group-process skills, young people can develop the skills they need to work together successfully in communities.

With over 35 years in administration and teaching in K-12 and higher education both in the U.S. and internationally, Dr. Nancy Cardenuto strives to cultivate creative and innovative learning paths. She is an adjunct professor in the master’s program at Concordia University – Portland, where she teaches courses in support of the Common Core State Standards.