This piece was co-written with Manpal Sahota and first appeared in KOTESOL’s “The English Connection” in 2011 (I think).
Every teacher knows that group dynamics are an important factor in the success of lessons and courses. Much harder than agreeing to this is putting it into practice and creating a positive group dynamic. Rapport and positive group dynamics, like trust, “come on foot and leave on horseback.” In this column we will focus on how to build and create positive group dynamics. Group dynamics begin the moment students come in the door on the first day of class and continue until the end of the course (and beyond). Clearly, starting the course out on a positive note is very important. Ample time should be spent allowing the students to get to know each other as well as the instructor and the course. Icebreaking activities like those found at both http://www.eslcafe.com and www.eslflow.com can be very helpful to the end.
Michael once worked in a program where the director complained when time was spent on “getting to know you” type activities at the start of the term and informed the teaching staff that these activities were to be avoided. Michael feels that this policy was detrimental to group dynamics and thus detrimental to student learning. Students need time to acclimate themselves to all the newness that comes with a new class.
We are big proponents of creating group norms or rules with the class in the early stages of a course. This way everyone will be “on board” regarding the norms and expectations. This also has the added benefit of helping the students feel engaged and involved and as though it is their class. The good news is that at the start of a term or course there is likely to be a lot of goodwill, curiosity and excitement that can be converted to rapport and positive group dynamics.
We advocate giving students chances to build up trust with each other and the teacher. The aptly named Classroom Dynamics by Jill Hadfield contains a wealth of activities for improving group dynamics at all stages of a course. Group Dynamics in the Language Classroom by Zoltan Dornyei and Tim Murphy is also highly recommended. The book provides a nice mix of practical suggestions and academic thoughts that draw from a variety of fields.
It can be helpful to have students create nicknames for their groups when they will be working in the group for any significant amount of time. Going beyond nicknames, Michael has had success having groups make a coat of arms, motto, chant, and handshake. One group took it a step further and created their own rap song.
Another important element in creating positive group dynamics is making sure that all group members can easily see and interact with each other. Manpal recently observed an elementary school teacher who had his students divided into 2 groups of seven students, with each group seated in a horizontal line, and one group in front of the other. This setup made it difficult for students in to interact with their group members. Furthermore, the two students on the each end of the line couldn’t even see each other. After the class, Manpal and the teacher moved the chairs around so that each group sits in a horseshoe shape and each group member is facing other members. Since the change the teacher has noticed a marked improvement during group work and has seen his students attach themselves to their group identity and the small but important change has significantly improved cooperative learning among the group members.
Physical location can have a big impact on group dynamics. We also think that changing students’ seats and groups around on a regular basis can be very helpful for promoting group dynamics. Students of all ages have mentioned to both Michael and Manpal that they enjoyed having the opportunity to work with a variety of partners. Without changing seats and groups the atmosphere can get stale more easily. Working with different people can exploit the natural information gaps that occur while keeping things fresh. This makes sense pedagogically but can also have a big impact on the group. Having students move around can give them chances to make friends with other people in the class more easily. It can also help lessen the power of “negative pockets” by moving the people around. Additionally, moving around and changing partners can help integrate “loners” into the classroom community more easily.
It’s also important to make students responsible for each other and for their group. One way to do this is by designating group captains/leaders. You can shift many of the traditional teacher roles and responsibilities onto group leaders. Another option is to assign specific roles to each member of the group (secretary/writer/timer/spelling and grammar checker/reporter/researcher/etc.). We recommend changing group roles periodically so that all students can experience various leadership roles and the sense of duty to their group members.
Another benefit of changing seats and groupings is that students can play different roles in the different groups that they are part of. Many teachers like to make groups that are balanced in terms of English ability, leadership, and effort. While he can certainly appreciate this, Michael sometimes likes to make a group comprised of all leaders and other groups comprised of people that don’t typically take leadership roles. This often has the benefit of forcing the non-leaders into leadership role and giving those that typically lead a new and different experience to reflect on. Reflecting on the roles in the group and the roles of the group in class is often time well spent. It seems that reflecting on the group process is not something that is done in many classes, let alone in a foreign language.
Play is an often under-appreciated factor in creating positive group dynamics. Students can create powerful bonds when working together in groups. This can be especially true when they are competing against other groups and your class management system includes an on-going group based point/reward system (please refer to our spring 2010 TEC column for more details on class management techniques). We recommend using a variety of competitive and collaborative activities/games when possible.
The games that are often used in class favour students with extensive vocabularies and grammatical knowledge. While this is certainly understandable there is great benefit to be gained from rewarding students whose talents lie in areas other than conjugating verbs and remembering vocabulary. Ideally, teachers should reward students’ effort during class rather than their prior linguistic knowledge. Michael recently talked to a Korean teacher that used activities where students with clear handwriting were prized. Since this was a departure from the things typically valued in class different students were able to get support and encouragement from their peers. Grouping students, and setting up activities that value things other than just English ability can be very helpful to promote a positive group atmosphere. Strategies like this idea can help boost students’ confidence and participation while at the same time improve group dynamics.
Of course, there can always be difficulties with any initiative you try in the classroom. There will be times were certain students may hinder positive group dynamics. When this happens it’s vital that you address students that are not positively contributing to the group and encourage them to get on board. One poignant example of this is “Leroy time” which was the strategy that a teacher in the United States used to help an outgoing but potentially disruptive student, Leroy, concentrate in class. If he participated positively in class he was awarded with 5 minute of time with which he could lead the class. In Korea, “Leroy time” might not be practical or even possible but it is important to remember that different students might require unorthodox strategies in order to get them to engage in the classroom discourse.
Remember that every day is different. Don’t expect what worked 2 years ago or Tuesday or this morning to work with every group. Don’t expect all groups to be the same, don’t give up, don’t show your anger, don’t write a class off because of a few bad days or bad apples, and don’t expect all group members to behave as best friends. We encourage you to adapt the ideas we presented, as well as the wealth of information from the sources we recommended, to the particular students that you find yourself with each day.