This e-bulletin is the first Learning and Thinking Skills to focus on the ‘Team Workers’ strand, highlighting strategies that can help students to learn with, and from, each other more effectively

This week we will look at strategies that can help young learners to start thinking and talking about the concept of ‘team work’. As in previous bulletins, these strategies will help to make the ‘invisible’ qualities and skills associated with thinking and learning, both ‘visible’ and learnable. They are designed to help staff and students develop a common understanding of what the different PTLS skills and competencies mean, and a common language for exploring their value both in school and in every day life.

Effective Teamwork – an example lesson

This week’s strategies will be exemplified within the context of a lesson which focuses explicitly on the ‘process’ of learning – in other words, a lesson where the teacher and students think and talk together about learning, and students begin to take on more responsibility for how they think and learn together. In this example, the lesson is structured in order to encourage learning conversations about what makes for an effective team.

The PLTS lesson planning form that guided the design of this lesson can be downloaded here.

Part one: Launching

  • Learning intentions:
    Share the intention to focus on the skills and behaviours associated with effective team work as well as any curriculum objectives.
  • Run an introductory activity to help learners connect with existing experience and understanding:
    Divide the class into teams five and ask each team member to number themselves 1 to 5. Give each group two voting cards, one labelled ‘TEAM’ and the other ‘NOT A TEAM’.

Show the class a photograph that may or may not illustrate effective team work – they have 30 seconds to decide together which way to vote and to ensure that all team members know and understand the team’s reasoning.

Call a number at random from 1 to 5. That person must raise their voting card in the air and be prepared to explain their team’s thinking.

Example photos can be downloaded here (set 1) and here (set 2).

  • Negotiate success indicators with pupils to encourage them to take responsibility for how they work together; and to involve them in monitoring/evaluating the quality of their team work. Ask a class draw up two lists – what effective team work ‘Looks like’ and ‘Sounds like’ in the setting in which you are working. Make sure to push for very specific indicators with examples that can be observed for. For example, rather than ‘Good Communication’ which is rather broad, push for examples such as ‘Speaks Clearly’, or ‘Asks Questions’, such as ‘What do you think? Is that ok with everyone?’.
  • Allocate an observer role:
    One team member takes on the role of observer or ‘Learning Detective’. They will watch out for the success indicators drawn up by the class. It helps if you can provide a record sheet for students to note down any significant examples that they see and hear.

A ‘Good Team Work Observation Sheet’ can be downloaded here.

Part two: Students working together

  • Provide an open ended challenge which students must tackle in groups:
    The ‘Collective Memory’ activity is a one of the best ways to encourage your students to think about how to work effectively as a team – and, additionally, how they take in and process information. The aim is for your students to cooperate in teams of five (including one observer), with each team operating as a ‘human photocopier’, reproducing information as accurately as possible. The information can be an image, map, diagram or body of text, or a combination of these, and should represent an important element of the curriculum that you would like them to remember.

With all age groups, the strategy is guaranteed to create a buzz of excitement. It is fast paced, it engages everyone and there is an element of competition between teams that intensifies the concentration of the individuals engaged in memorising and recalling the data. It is all good fun but beware, too much pressure could cause the odd ‘photocopier’ to blow up!

1. Introduce the idea of working together as human photocopiers.
2. Each team member adopts a number from 1 to 4 with one observer.
3. Place the map or diagram to be ‘copied’ under a sheet of paper so you can reveal it easily to a small group without it being seen by the others, i.e. on a flip chart turned away from the class.
4. Explain that you will call up all the number 1s and they will have 15 seconds to ‘scan’ and memorise the information. They will return to their teams and begin the process of reproducing it as exactly as possible. Then you will call up the 2s, then the 3s, and then the 4s. Everyone will get (at least) 3 turns.
5. Allow time at the beginning for teams to plan how they will go about the task.
6. Start the ‘photocopiers’.

  • Provide time for progress review and response:
    Half-way through, provide time for teams to reconsider and amend their strategies.

Also provide time for the Observers to give their feedback, so that teams have the opportunity to respond and change the way they are working.

  • Managing the activity – some tips:
    • Watch and listen to the group work, making notes of significant incidents, behaviours or contributions that will inform the plenary stage that follows.
    • Intervene as little as possible so that the students can learn from their collaborative attempts to succeed.
    • If you do intervene, do so as a coach rather than an instructor – getting students to identify precisely what the problem is generally stimulates their suggestions for ways forward.
    • Ensure that the information to be ‘copied’ is important to your current topic and that it has a clear structure. There should be sufficient detail to challenge but not overwhelm the students.
    • Aim to balance the excitement associated with teamwork, time limits and competition with the time, concentration and care required for good memory and recall.

Part three: Students reflecting

In a lesson focusing on personal, learning and thinking skills, students should be asked to share not only what they have learned about the subject, but also what they have learned about the process that made the learning possible – their thinking. They are encouraged to reflect on how they might use their skills both across the curriculum and beyond into everyday life. We call thinking about thinking ‘metacognition’.

Metacognition requires lots of support and the quality of teacher questioning and listening will be key to its success.

  • Rich questioning
    You can develop your students’ ability to think metacognitively by asking ‘rich’ questions. They are rich because they can draw out a wealth of possible responses regarding knowledge, know-how, thoughts, feelings and speculations. Being a rich questioner involves you in asking questions about things you cannot already know the answer to, questions about how your students think and feel. Don’t expect an immediate reply to your rich questions; give them time to think. Listen closely to their responses so that you can ask follow-up questions that challenge and extend their thinking even further; and ‘join up’ their thinking so they can learn from each other. You could plan questions to help learners to focus on one or more of the following:

How they went about the task – methods/strategies used
How did you do the task as an individual? …As a team?How did your approach change in the course of the activity?

Who influenced the approach and outcome? How did they do that ?

Key moments/critical incidents – skills and qualities learners needed or observed in othersHow did your feelings change in the process of tackling the task? What personal qualities enabled you to work and think well as a group?

What did you find most challenging? How did you overcome the problem?

Previous knowledge drawn on or new understanding developedWhat knowledge did you draw on to be able to do this task?

What is the value of knowing that?

The value of what has been learned – the ‘So what?’ – including how it might be useful for other contexts/situations within school and beyondWhat advice would you give to another team new to this strategy?Describe one thing that you would keep, and one thing that you would you change about the way you did the task.

What is the most valuable thing that you have learned today?

When groups or individuals feed back, remember to ask supplementary questions such as ‘Explain that a bit more’, ‘How did that help?’ and ‘Why?’ In the Collective Memory activity, although you are on the lookout for any interesting thought or procedure, some of the most powerful things that you can expect students to bring out are:

  • The importance of planning, reviewing and refining – when the turns are speeded up and this is squeezed out, performance usually deteriorates.
  • Working out what the whole image is helps, because once you have the Big Picture you can both interpret the detail better and even predict what is there – this is so important in life, but you have to remember to check your assumptions.
  • You cannot remember too much at once, as your working memory has a very limited capacity, but you can maximise your memory capacity by remembering chunks or patterns and making connections.
  • You can help your group partners by asking them supportive questions.
  • Some people seem to be better at remembering text while others perhaps find visual patterns easier.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2009

About the author: Anne de A’Echevarria is the author of the award winning ‘Thinking Through School’. Previously a teacher, PGCE tutor and head of ‘Thinking for Learning’, a research and development team partnered with Newcastle University, she now works as a freelance education consultant and writer.