Tips for taking group work to another level

11th April 2014 at 01:00
Although teamwork is vital in the adult world, it is often neglected in schools, so get students to help each other reach new heights

Ask any company what skills they value most in a recruit and working well with others is likely to be high on the list. Yet as Connie Gibney, global leader of talent operations and technology at LinkedIn, says: "New recruits don't always realise the importance of teamwork."

This is perhaps because education systems don't either. Education tends to be a rush towards individual attainment rather than collaborative success (there are few if any examination rewards for work completed as a group), and so how to "teach" teamwork tends not to top many schools' list of priorities for continuing professional development.

Clearly we need to change our strategies if we are to properly prepare students for adulthood, where teamwork is key to everything from office politics to married life. At the heart of that change has to be better guidance for teachers on how to orchestrate effective group work so that students can see the value of teams and learn to work better within them.

TESS asked experts from around the globe for guidance on instilling the values of teamwork into students and teaching them to collaborate effectively. Here are the top tips.

Start early

Michael West, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School in England, believes that introducing teamwork at a young age is essential to building group skills. "There's no reason why five-year-olds shouldn't be learning to work cooperatively and interdependently in groups - they do it anyway in the playground," he says.

Size matters

Team size is a notoriously difficult issue to find agreement on, but there does seem to be a consensus among researchers that smaller groups work best: ideally somewhere between four and six students.

"A team of five can help to avoid a stalemate, ensuring that a casting vote is available when difficult decisions need to be reached," explains Meredith Belbin, management theorist and partner at UK consultancy Belbin Associates. "Larger groups encourage conformity - a tendency which may be more pronounced for young people susceptible to peer pressure. Typically, the larger the group, the looser its structure, so individual personalities can be subsumed by the crowd."

Dawn Deeter-Schmelz, director of the National Strategic Selling Institute and professor of marketing at Kansas State University's College of Business Administration in the US, agrees. "Anything bigger than six creates communication difficulties and when the team is smaller than four you sometimes don't benefit from the diversity of viewpoints and expertise present in a slightly larger team," she says.

Keep friends apart

There are good reasons for grouping students according to ability level and conversely good reasons not to - teachers should make the call according to the task at hand, the objectives to be met and the characteristics of the students. Attempting to group by personality or skill set, meanwhile, is not recommended. After all, in the real world you are generally thrown into a team featuring a varied and random selection of people.

One warning that does come up time and again is against putting friends together. "In schools, it may be preferable to break up friendship groups which could provide distractions," Belbin says.

Define roles clearly

"Role definitions are definitely critical," DeeterSchmelz says. "I tend to allow the students to decide their roles. If you were working with younger students, though, it might make more sense to provide more structure."

That could include matching the right skills to the right role, as the students may not yet have the insight to opt for the position that suits them best.

But while Belbin says that insistence on set roles within groups is important, he argues that allowing students to experiment beyond their core strengths could be more beneficial than restricting them to the areas they are "good" at.

Marie McKendall, a professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, US, agrees. "The best team member is one who can fulfil whichever role is necessary in a given situation, so practice in all roles is optimal," she says.

Take a step back

It can be tempting to try to dictate the progress of group work so that your targets are certain to be met. However, this is not advisable if you want to build teamwork skills.

"The teacher should not be heavy-handed. Students should be encouraged to exercise autonomy and resolve conflicts and difficulties as a unit, without hierarchical intervention," Belbin explains.

McKendall agrees, but says some guidance is still needed. "I have seen way too many classes where no instruction at all is given and each team just muddles through and nothing much is learned," she says.

Finding the balance can be tough, but Deeter-Schmelz argues that teachers should not be afraid to intervene when necessary. "I've experienced several team meltdowns in my years of teaching. Usually, this occurs because smaller problems aren't addressed early on. Early intervention by the teacher can help to avoid this issue; the teacher can share insights that the team can use to address and solve their problems."

Set extended tasks

Much of the group work in classrooms tends to be for short tasks. But long-term projects can be more beneficial, according to Belbin. "When undertaking long-term tasks we are more likely to enjoy the benefit of finding our fit and playing to our behavioural strengths," he explains. "For short-term tasks, this may not be the case."

McKendall shares this view, believing that longer-term group work gives students the time to build teamwork skills. It also encourages children to resolve problems, because they are stuck with their team for longer than just the one lesson.

"Short-term teams tend to be very goal-oriented, and they often do not have to do the depth of interpersonal work because the team will be disbanded soon," she says.

Rotate teams

It is quite common, particularly in primary schools, for students to be put into the same groups every time teamwork is required. Although this is easier logistically, it may not be beneficial for nurturing team skills.

"If a team is working well together, changes could risk the loss of team spirit. However, such rotation is prevalent in the workplace and so it is essential to demonstrate the dynamics of teamwork, to prevent stagnation and to persuade students to leave their comfort zones," Belbin says.

Deeter-Schmelz says an added benefit of rotating teams is that students learn to establish relationships more quickly and to adapt to different dynamics. "We want students to learn how to gel quickly, and to learn how to operate within a variety of teams," she explains.

The four Cs

LinkedIn's Gibney swears by the "four Cs" of teamwork and says teachers should ensure that all students are aware of them. They are: "Clarity - make sure everyone knows what the main aim of the activity is so you're all working to the same objective; consideration - both of the ideas and other people's viewpoints; curiosity - test your ideas to the limit and don't be afraid to ask questions; compromise - always be open to allowing your idea to be built upon by others."

Appropriate activities

"Teachers and lecturers tend to design poor group work, giving students group tasks that are best done by individuals working alone," West argues. "For example, they may be asked to analyse a case study and produce a report. It's difficult for people to have different roles and produce different bits of a report or presentation in a coherent way.

"Educationalists should design tasks for groups that are best done by a group, like coming up with a business plan - one person does the marketing plan, another the product design, another the financial plan. When students are asked to work in groups on a task not suited to teamwork it leads to high levels of conflict and a sense of inefficacy as a team worker."

What else?

Find 50 practical strategies for effective group work in Mike Gershon's toolkit.


Watch a Teachers TV video on group work and feedback.


Assign team roles quickly and easily with these handy cards.


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