The major lesson learned over the last month is that no matter how awesome I am, I am not a magician.
Teacher’s cannot expect to walk into their classrooms, open their box of tricks, and have children play along gleefully (not even with music and white powdery ingestables).
What is really important for setting up a classroom for a smooth and successful learning journey^ is just that – the set up. It is so easy to gloss over this, and I certainly have been a lot. I mean these kids have been in school for eight years already, they know how a classroom learning environment works by now*. Reminding them of that is not my job as a middle school teacher, right? I should be able to just dive right into my lesson, yeah? These guys should know how to work in groups already, surely?
Wrong. Wrong. And more wrong. And apparently “group work” needs to be replaced with “co-operative learning”.
Setting up the classroom can be considered something of a classroom-level teaching strategy. Control your classroom as a whole and you won’t have (as much) trouble with individuals. It can be as simple as a seating plan that places some control over who can interact with who (something I didn’t get a chance to experiment with) or letting students have lesson goals (which I tried out in Man vs. Machine).
When it gets into co-operative learning in small groups another great set-up strategy I tried was to assign roles to students within groups. One version of this is to nominate a leader (who then delegates roles to others). This is deceptively simple, but depends on some maturity in your students to avoid their self-righteous Napoleonic instincts coming out. Maybe okay with year 9’s, but perhaps not the best idea for year 8’s. Thus I spent a bit more effort in planning groups and assigning roles to each student within the groups.
Groups were being asked to ‘invent an organism’ (similar to this activity from The Future Is Wild website). Groups contained:
- An artist: responsible for creating their creation (various media were supplied; crayons, collage and craft), they must be positive towards any ideas
- A speaker: responsible for reporting to the class afterwards, during the task they need to clarify any suggestions from others, and repeat information that others do not hear (they should be the only team member that the teacher can hear)
- A messenger: responsible for trading craft materials, stimulus materials and spying on other teams creations (they are the only team member allowed to leave their work area – perfect for fidgety kids)
- A lawkeeper: responsible for keeping all team members on task, resolving any arguments, and bargaining with any visiting messenger
These were based on some role cards a lecturer showed us from this collection of groupwork/coop learning strategies. I adapted them to a more create-and-present style task, and also tried to build in redundancy duality. The artist could be split into a scribe and an artist, and the messenger could be split into a spy and a courier (this is what I initially had, but our on-site mentor pointed out some concerns about having 2 out of 4 team members free-to-roam). Due to a bunch of students bunking off to music, we actually ended up in groups of 3, and so the superfluous “leader”-like role of lawkeeper was ditched from most groups.
One of my fellow student teachers introduced a similar co-operative situation in a physics class, students who weren’t fulfilling their assigned duties were asked if they had resigned or retired by the other kids in class.
The idea of these roles aren’t to restrict the students to particularly ways of working, but to give them opportunity to experience things in a more controlled environment, so that they might then be able to apply those experiences when faced with more realistic (or indeed real) situations. Rather than being in a a group where all students often try to all be scribe-speaker-lawkeepers at once, students can now see the benefit of each of them undertaking specialised roles, and even get some feel for which role best suits them.
Oh and the title of this entry was entirely an excuse to post this video:
On the side the design-an-organism lesson is a fantastic idea (despite its relation to teleology) and I will be returning to it later.
^oh, come on, it is fun coming up with these phrases
*I and my supervising teachers did often question this though, given their propensity to call out, get out of their seats without asking, throw things at one another, not brings pencils, books or classwork into the room, etc. etc.