Another key component of group work that can narrow the achievement gap is connecting your classroom management to the common core standards. As I outlined in the post ClassDojo and the Common Core, the common core standards can easily be broken down into specific behaviors which can then be taught, monitored, reinforced and ultimately become part of the classroom expectations. For example, the English language arts speaking and listening standards state that students must “propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence”. The behavior associated with this standard is asking questions. While you may need to do some teaching and scaffolding about questioning, this is a specific and attainable behavior for most students. Even if a student isn’t a strong reader or writer, they can still attain this skill. In fact, this may be a strength. There are many opportunities for identifying these behaviors in the reading, writing and math standards as well. Looking for these opportunities within the common core is essential in order to do what I am suggesting.
These behaviors are opportunities for students to shine in a group in places where they would normally struggle. This can increase what Cohen and Lotan refer to as “status”. Status is a hierarchy that develops within small groups. In her book Designing groupwork: strategies for the heterogeneous classroom, Cohen argues that status issues are present in most groups. Even adult groups have status issues. She found that even when race, age and gender were eliminated as a variable, a hierarchy developed (Cohen, 1994). It is not always related to achievement but can also be related to race, gender, peer status and other aspects of inequality.
Consider what each skill “looks” like and “sounds” like? What would you see and hear from your students if they were exhibiting critical thinking, for example? Asking questions, brainstorming information, drawing pictures of a problem, or creating a visual representations on paper might all be things you would see or hear from students exhibiting critical thinking. There are of course a host of other behaviors or ones that make more sense in a certain topic or with a certain task. It doesn’t really matter as long as you can define and explain the behaviors to students explicitly.
Don’t leave it at that. Monitor these behaviors during group work. This is an important step in improving the status of students. As you walk around and monitor the specific behaviors you have identified, you have the opportunity to give feedback to students. Pay specific attention for opportunities to point out when typically low achieving students have exhibited good examples of the behaviors you have taught. In addition to achievement and academic status, there are other ways that students can present as having low status. So don’t assume that because a student does well at school that there aren’t ways you can equalize their status in the classroom in other ways. Look for students who are not participating and look for ways to increase their status through feedback on the behaviors you have taught. How you monitor these behaviors is up to you. Checklists and charts work great. I rely on ClassDojo for this purpose and have found it invaluable. The fact that the common core as well as many 21st century skills rely on collaboration and technology has changed classroom management. Are you changing with it? The more confident students feel, the more motivated they will be to participate and be productive, ultimately increasing achievement.