Envision your perfect classroom filled with students.
What would it look like as students learned new material? What would it sound like as they developed new skills?
While obviously, the answers to these questions will vary from teacher to teacher and subject to subject, there are often commonalities that most teachers can agree on.
We want students to be genuinely engaged in and curious about what they are learning.
To take learning into their own hands, showing initiative and perseverance.
And to collaborate and learn from one another.
At the cornerstone of this idyllic classroom is one pedagogical structure: autonomous group work.
Sure, it takes a little skill to execute correctly, but implementing autonomous groups in your class doesn’t have to exist only in your teaching fantasies.
With a little planning and practice, you can be one step closer to making the classroom of your dreams a reality.
Why Autonomous Group Work?
So just what is it about small autonomous groups that can be so powerful for student learning?
Well, when students have some degree of autonomy, they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to dig into learning and stick with hard tasks.
Additionally, autonomous work means that students are more likely to do the heavy cognitive lifting instead of teachers.
Independent work can include a high degree of autonomy as well, but there are many benefits to using small groups.
For one, students who get stuck on a task have a network of peers to help them. Secondly, by working in groups students learn important skills of collaborating, compromising, and teamwork. And finally, organizing students into groups plays to the social side of student aptitudes – making class more enjoyable!
Implementing Small Autonomous Groups in Your Class
Having students work in groups is one thing, but ensuring those groups are on task, productive, and sharing work evenly is where the challenges arise.
The following tips are good starting places to avoid common pitfalls.
Set Clear Expectations
We can’t stress this one enough! Don’t assume that students know they should only be talking about the task in front of them. Don’t assume that they know they all need to participate.
Set very clear expectations and systems to ensure that all students are involved and focused.
And make sure students know what will happen if the expectations are not met.
Build Up Slowly
Learning to work productively in groups is a skill of its own. Don’t expect students to be experts all at once.
Ease students into the process by starting with organized systems and shorter timeframes.
Groups might have one minute to work on one problem and the person sitting in seat A will be sharing out an answer for the group.
As they get the hang of it groups will be able to work for longer periods of time and tackle bigger questions successfully.
Worried that some group members are going to kick back and relax leaving their teammates to do all the work?
Consider assigning jobs so that every group member has a responsibility. These are likely to change depending on the subject, but some common options include:
- Group leader: responsible for keeping all team members on task
- Reader: reads the question
- Recorder: writes down group answers
- Timekeeper: takes time and reminds group when it’s time to move on
- Reporter: shares out group answers with the class
Some of these roles can overlap depending on the size of your groups. Make sure to change roles periodically!
Sometimes, autonomous group work is just as hard for teachers as it is for students. You have to be willing to step back and let kids struggle with something on their own for a bit.
Try the following trick: immediately after giving directions and setting groups off to work, draw an invisible box on the floor and challenge yourself to stay inside of it.
While eventually, you’ll want to walk around and listen in to what kids are doing, at first push yourself to really leave kids to their own devices.
Another best practice is to only walk over to a group to answer a question if ALL group members raise their hand. This helps ensure that groups have asked their peers about an area of confusion and are generally all in doubt before they seek teacher help.
It’s bound to take time to match the classroom of your dreams, but with a little work, autonomous groups can help you get close!