Let’s face it, when cooperative learning, in the form of group or teamwork appears on the classroom agenda, most students utter a groan of discontent. Yet research time and again shows that cooperative learning has strong academic and social benefits (Gillies, 2016).
So, when I announced the Humanitarian Team Challenge to my then Year 9/10 mixed ability class, their response was as expected. Though, my experience in running this internal school event is that it becomes the highlight of the year for many students.
It’s a cross-curricula study encompassing many of the learning areas, general capabilities, and cross-curriculum priorities of the Australian Curriculum. Students adopt a humanitarian aid organisation and, after a term’s intensive work, develop a team presentation, market stall and associated documents, to be exhibited to their parents, staff and other school students as authentic audience at the end of term, who vote by ‘signing-up’ to the best three presentations.
The task can be mediated at every level by technology. Placed on the school’s Learning Management System (LMS), facilitated by Microsoft Teams, it is broken into smaller steps as part of a scaffolding strategy for those with additional learning support needs. These students, even Gifted and Talented (GAT) students, generally dislike working in teams, though for different reasons. Students with additional needs because they can feel left out, do not know how to contribute, or may be perceived as not contributing enough by other team members (Ball, 1994); whilst GAT students often feel they are heavily relied on by their team to do much of the work.
Yet, research has shown that the benefits to them can be overwhelming, including improved self-esteem, the establishment of a safe learning environment, and importantly, it gives these students a voice (Jenkins et al., 2003).
However, effective implementation of group learning takes careful planning. There are some key steps that teachers should take when including students with special needs (Ball, 1994), and the careful and intentional planned use of technology can help support their successful inclusion.
Starting with planning – teachers must plan the teamwork from the beginning. The intentional planning of teamwork, including a good lesson introduction, motivational rationale, and clearly defined tasks that set at an appropriate level of challenge, can be the key to teamwork success.
In the example of the Team Challenge, I included a detailed timeline showing what we would be working on and all the tasks that needed to be completed. This was linked to the class calendar in the school’s LMS, so students would not only know what task was needed by when, but the LMS reminded them. When you have the community coming into your school to view work samples, you must make sure there are work samples to view!
Teaming of students
There are three types of teams/cooperative learning strategies that support students with additional needs – peer tutoring, cross-age tutoring, and teacher-chosen small team learning (Burnette, 1999). For the Team Challenge, I chose a combination of all of these.
I chose specific peers for students with additional needs to work with, situating these within teacher-chosen small teams. I conducted an online sociogram, to get a good understanding of which students would work well together. I chose not to base my decisions just on my personal observations or knowledge of the students, I wanted to make sure the Challenge worked, and I was also conscious that I may not have been aware of all the dynamics going on in the school. So, an online sociogram is a great way of understanding class dynamics, and a good tool to use for planning teamwork (there’s different software out there, but something like Sometics, which has a free basic account, be used).
And I kept the teams small. Again, drawing on the research we know that smaller teams of three or four work better than larger teams (Gillies, 2016). Though, keeping in mind the sociogram results, I was flexible with the sizes. This resulted in having teams of different sizes in the classroom, but this did not affect the outcomes for the students.
The next step is to communicate teamwork expectations, team roles and rules for behaviour. This is where technology can be a great assistant too. Instructions for the teamwork can be stated in the LMS, so students can review when needed. It is also a great idea to use online word processing software to establish team roles and rules.
Roles are important, so that all students know what is required of them. It also ensures that no one is left out. The teacher must make sure there are enough roles for all students to have a meaningful part to play. Having all students in the team contribute to setting up the rules and roles, helps them all to take ownership of their behaviour. This can be underpinned by role playing expected and undesirable behaviour to reinforce them. The roles and rules for each team in the Team Challenge were created using Microsoft word, and the completed documents were uploaded into the Microsoft Team accounts, set up before the project began.
The team task must be clearly defined, with the main team goal stated in such a way that there is no doubt in the minds of the students. Asking students to break down the main team goal into smaller goals, and then take responsibility for them, will help them to take each other and their individual contributions seriously. This can again be done using an online team document, where the goals are clearly stated for all members to see. This is particularly useful for students with additional needs, as their goals are then clearly stated, to be referred to as needed.
It also helps to make team members individually accountable – so, not a team mark, but an individual mark based on the contributions of the individual. Going back to my example of the Team Challenge, each student was asked to review their contribution and then to assess the contribution of the other members of the team. This document was shared with them at the beginning of the project (no surprises), and was available on the LMS, so all students knew what to expect.
Students were also required to complete a self-reflection, further demonstrating their learning during the project. They could do so in writing, or online – interestingly, about half chose to complete it in writing, even though most of the project was completed using their computers.
Teachers must monitor the behaviour, progress and learning of the students, with a specific focus on those with additional needs. In the Challenge, many teams made their own adjustments for the students who needed additional support. Yet, there were a few occasions when I had to step in, specifically for those with behavioural and attention problems. However, there were several physical tasks that needed to be completed, and this gave these students an opportunity to run around and then come back into the class to work towards their individual goals.
In concluding, I’d like to briefly mention assumptions that operate in some schools – that students know how to use technology, know how to use it well, and will use it without losing focus. In reality, some students will know how to use some of the technology, very few will know how to use it well, and technology is a great distractor, no matter how well you plan your classroom lessons! There are just going to be times when you need to switch off the devices and revert to pen and paper.
So, when you plan for the use of technology in your classroom, whether for individual or group work, you must include planning to teach students how to use the relevant technology, or at least review its use. You need to be familiar with the technology first, and then teach it.
Teach them to use the software, show them where important information is kept in the LMS.
Check they are on the same page as you. Make sure all students, including those with additional needs, can do what you require them to do. Do not rely on the student knowing, or other students showing how.
Ball, J. (1994). Small group work for students with special needs. Teaching and Learning, 15(1), 18-29. https://repository.nie.edu.sg/bitstream/10497/441/1/TL-15-1-18.pdf (96KB)
Burnette, J. (1999). Groupings That Work for Students With Disabilities. Reading Rockets. https://www.readingrockets.org/article/groupings-work-students-disabilities
Gillies, R. M. (2016). Cooperative Learning: Review of Research and Practice. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 41(3), 39-54. http://dx.doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2016v41n3.3
Jenkins, J. R., Antil, L. R., Wayne, S. K., & Vadasy, P. F. (2003). How cooperative learning works for special education and remedial students. Exceptional Children, 69(3), 279-292. https://doi.org/10.1177/001440290306900302
Think about your own experience of getting students to complete a group or team learning task. What were the sticking points and issues for students, and for you as the teacher?
Looking at the key steps outlined by Dr Karin Oerlemans in this article, how could you use these strategies to improve the experience next time?