This ebulletin begins to look at how to troubleshoot common problems that students face when asked to work together in groups or teams. It continues Anne de A’Echevarria’s focus on ‘Team Workers’ from the PLTS curriculum doc-4654065

What do we have in common.ppt

When teams fail, it is almost always for one of two reasons: the students don’t want to work together, or they don’t know how to work together – they lack either the will or the skill to cooperate as a team. This week, we will focus on team-building strategies that can be used to help learners develop the will to work together during the lifespan of a team.

When we put students together in groups, we are intentionally asking them to work with people they may never have chosen. When students group themselves, they often self-segregate along lines of achievement, interest, ethnicity or gender. To improve class relations, tutoring and management, we often aim to create more heterogeneous teams but our good intentions can create strong resistance among some students – they would rather have other teammates. This is where team-building can come to the rescue. If you have created heterogeneous groups, some team-building will always be beneficial, particularly when groups are first formed, and where there are tensions among students, team-building is a must. It is often something we overlook in a desire to ‘get on with the task’, but to persist with group activity without dealing with such tensions is, as Spencer Kagan has put it, ‘to run a race with large pebbles in your sneakers’.

The amount, type and timing of the team-building you do in the classroom will not only depend on the needs of your students, but also on the type of group activity that you have planned. A straightforward, closed activity will require little or no team-building. With a more complex, open-ended task, however, there is more scope for conflict to arise. In this context, students will learn together more successfully if a strong, positive team identity has first been developed. Five or ten minutes spent focusing on team building can be beneficial even if a group will only be working together for an hour.

Creating an ‘A’ TEAM

The five elements of team-building can be summed up as follows.

‘A’cquaintance – with one another
‘T’olerance and trust – of one another
‘E’xpression – of team identity
‘A’ppreciation – of differences
‘M’utual benefit – achieving more together than we can alone

Each of these elements can be explored and developed using a range of different activities. At least one example activity for each element is offered below.

1) Acquaintance – with one another
Icebreaker activities can be used to help teammates get to know each other and develop a sense of belonging. It is important to feel known and accepted by one’s peers.

  • Team interviews and rounds

Each team member is interviewed in turn for a predetermined time using a series of question prompts on a particular topic. What’s in a name? is a good example.

How did you get your name? Is there an interesting family history linked with your name? Do you like your name? What would you be called if you could have another name? Do you have a nickname?

As an alternative, students interview each other in pairs within the team then each group member shares what they have learned about their partner in a ’round’.

Other example topics for interviews or ’rounds’ might include favourite possession, place or piece of clothing. Students also enjoy introducing themselves metaphorically in response to the question, If you were a vehicle, animal, bird, shape, type of weather etc. what would you be and why? or by choosing a picture from a varied set that says something about how you are feeling in the group right now and why.

2) Tolerance and trust – of one another
Once students have introduced themselves and begin to feel part of a team, introduce activities that help team members to develop a mutual sense of trust. A team gains strength when the members feel they can count on each other for support.

One student is blindfolded while a teammate takes them on a tour of the room. The guide ‘shows’ them the room through the sense of touch – placing their hand on objects while describing the objects. An alternative is to guide them round a simple obstacle course (a good way of reinforcing prepositions and direction-giving in an MfL context). After a set amount of time, students swap over. Afterwards, teams discuss how they felt giving and receiving guidance and care.

3) Expression – of team identity
A team forms an identity by defining itself in a unique way, such as creating its own name, logo, chant or solution to a problem. The successful completion of any team task will reinforce this sense of team identity. In the early stages of team formation, it is particularly important to provide an activity that gives each team the opportunity for distinctive self-expression.

Teams create hats from assorted scrap material. Team hats are not necessarily all identical, but must be related in some way – there must be something that distinguishes them from the hats of another team. You could also ask the students to physically connect the hats together so that they can only be worn all at once – because fours heads together are better than one! Other options include the creation of team handshakes, banners, mottos, monuments or greetings.

Whatever the option chosen, ask students to use ‘consensus rules’ to guide the process.

  1. Each team member must have a say.
  2. No decision can be reached unless everyone agrees – or can at least ‘live with it’.
  3. No member gives in to the group decision if (s)he has a serious objection.
  4. These rules help to set important principles for future group activity, namely, participation, consensus and respect for each individual.

Download this round robin technique for exploring commonalities as a way of devising a team name and logo – an approach which also encourages the principle of equal participation.

4) Appreciation – of differences
Introduce value clarification activities to encourage team members to explore and clarify their own values, and to understand and accept value differences among their teammates.

In this activity students place their mark on an Agree-Disagree line. After taking a stance, they must listen to why each person took his or her particular stance.

Step 1: Provide a value judgement that will generate a range of opinion. You could begin with more light-hearted examples such as The Big Bad Wolf wasn’t really bad he was framed, or Ignorance is bliss, then move on to statements that are bolder and more contentious – something that is likely to stir the feelings of everyone in the class. An example might be People who damage their own health should pay the cost of their own treatment.

Step 2: Provide students with some thinking time, then, on the count of three, each member of the team must simultaneously take a stance by placing his or her mark on the opinion line at a point that shows how much they agree or disagree.

Step 3: Students could then use a Three step interview (from Issue 13) or hold an open team discussion to determine the basis for the value differences. At this discussion stage, you could also introduce the idea of a ‘paraphrase permit’. The paraphrase permit prevents any one team member from dominating, by imposing the convention that after someone has contributed an idea or opinion, the next speaker must correctly restate that idea or opinion, checking that they have understood correctly, before making their own contribution. This convention encourages team members to listen to and show respect for the contributions of others. It also lets individuals know how their ideas have been heard by others and can give them cues regarding their communication skills.

Step 4: Students may repeat Step 3 to discover if there has been any movement as a result of their discussion.

Step 5: Students could also attempt to identify the core values underlying their positions. Initially, this step may need to be scaffolded by providing students with a set of examples to choose from such as security, self-respect, responsibility, honesty, justice, wisdom and so on.

Opinion line activities are successful if the team comes to feel that the differences between them can lead to mutually enriching discussions and creativity, and if each student feels accepted and validated for articulating a viewpoint that is both reasonable and well-reasoned. The Feely gauge activity (from Issue 5) could also be adopted for this purpose.

5) Mutual benefit – achieving more together than we can alone
An aim of team-building activity is to enable students to experience the increased energy or ‘synergy’ created when individuals are working in cooperation – a synergy that often leads to an outcome of appreciably higher quality than the product of even the best individual working alone. Any task in which interaction causes stimulation and refinement of ideas is likely to offer students this experience. A light-hearted introductory example is provided below.

Team members first number themselves one to four, and create three paper balls – each roughly the size of a tennis ball.

Step 1: Set a Pattern
Student One passes to Student Four who sends it to one of the other two who sends it to the remaining student who sends it back to Student One.

Step 2: Rolling
Get all three balls going at once across the table. Start slowly, and only send a ball when you are sure the receiver is ready.

Step 3: Juggling
Finally, students stand up and get all three balls moving in the air using underhand throws. Increase difficulty by moving further apart, using just one hand, or introducing additional balls of paper!

Teachers who have done extensive team-building work with their classes repeatedly stress how the ‘time off’ academic tasks results in more, rather than less, academic achievement due to the classroom culture of trust and mutual support that it helps to develop. Having said that, not all team-building is ‘time off’ curriculum work. It is quite possible to create content-related team-building activities which serve the dual purpose of uniting the team and developing or reinforcing subject-specific understanding.

Having established the will to work together, learners are far better prepared to collaborate on a given activity or project. The desire to collaborate, however, is not enough. The will to work together will be quickly eroded unless learners also develop the social skills that they will need to deal with the problems teams create. In the next issue, therefore, we will look at ways to help learners develop those social skills and find ways of troubleshooting common teamwork problems for themselves.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 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.