In 2016, I was teaching third grade. One of our initiatives was to include STEM activities in our science lessons. I began with a simple project designing balloon-powered cars, but what started as a promising process quickly went south.
Balloons weren’t inflating and cars weren’t moving. After looking around at my students, I realized the main reason they were struggling was that they simply weren’t working together as teams. They weren’t collaborating or communicating effectively. A few students were being downright mean to each other.
Frustrated at their lack of progress and inability to work together, I reached out to a friend who had directed a similar project. But I did not want to hear about being patient with their “productive struggle” or that I had to embrace “failing forward.” I am all about growth mindset and grit, but I felt like something else was at play, and I wanted real answers. We came to a conclusion: My kids needed to be explicitly taught how to work collaboratively.
As teachers, we often put students in groups and expect that they’ll know how to work well together. But think back to the days when you had to work in a group. It didn’t matter if it was middle school or graduate school or a professional development session—the dynamics were likely the same. One person stands out as the leader, one (at least) was a slacker, while another sits back quietly being overpowered by others regardless of what they might have to offer. And inevitably one group member has nothing productive to add but will argue about anything and everything.
Recently, I wrote a book about unleashing the power of those quiet kids, also known as introverts, who make up as much as a third of our classrooms. Most of the time, introverts feel like they get steamrolled during group work. The problem lies within the dynamics. Being thrown together in a group with the expectation of working collaboratively goes against the very nature of introverts. They are being asked to work in ways that are counterintuitive to their personalities. The intent of group work is to involve everyone. This usually means you have to talk—and being quiet simply doesn’t work when it comes to that expectation.
This group dynamic was pretty much what I saw with my students during the two days they worked on the balloon-powered car task. So, at my friend’s suggestion, the next day we sat as a group and reflected upon the experience. The kids were honest about their shortcomings and what they brought to the proverbial table during this project-based learning (PBL) experience.
Next, we took the time to talk about teamwork. We started with each child brainstorming a list in their notebooks about what teamwork should look and sound like. The next step was to share those ideas with the group. I hung up large pieces of paper and encouraged my students to come up (all at the same time) and jot down their thoughts. The key was to have them all write at the same time so no one could see who contributed what idea. That way we didn’t have to deal with any judgment from the students.
Then we stood back and looked at all the common elements. The kids were shocked at how much they agreed on, despite all the arguing during the project. Finally, as a group, we decided on a set of norms, which we put on a chart to refer back to when working in teams.
From that point forward, my students have had many more experiences in which to collaborate to complete a task: building different types of circuits, creating coding playgrounds for Ozobots and Breakout EDU games. Structured collaboration reigns where frustrating chaos used to rule.
The trick is knowing your students as individual learners first and designing your groups accordingly. Establishing norms before any type of “teamwork” activities take place is also key. Providing designated roles for each group member helps quiet kids stay engaged and take a more active part in the group dynamic. I also took my quiet kids aside individually and reminded them that their thoughts and opinions mattered and had value. I encouraged them to be patient and wait out the chaos while their extroverted classmates vied for the spotlight. Those quiet kids could be the voice of reason after the commotion died down.
I also talked with my extroverted students about the nature of their quiet classmates, explaining to each group that the other couldn’t help the way they’d been wired. The extroverts didn’t mean to hog the spotlight, and in most cases didn’t realize they were overpowering class discussions. In the end, they all had to figure out how to work together. Striking the right balance between group and independent work isn’t easy, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but as teachers, we have to try to find what works best for each group of students that sits before us.
This excerpt is adapted from Chrissy Romano-Arrabito’s “Quiet Kids Count: Unleashing the True Potential of Introverts” (Times 10 Publications).