Don't Force Group Work, Facilitate Experiential Learning
By James Salsich, an 8th grade language arts teacher at Plainfield Central School in Plainfield, Conn., and Justin McGlamery, the founder of Focus Your Locus Teambuilding Training and Development
"We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience." —John Dewey
Most students do not know how to work in small groups, nor do they understand the value of this way of learning. Educators know that collaboration and all its different facets hold essential skills for our students' future, yet too often, group work falls into one of two extremes: teacher-led small groups with minimal room for error for students or student-led small groups, which is often equivalent to crossing our fingers and hoping it works. Group work is frequently poorly framed or modeled and is therefore ineffective. Both students and teachers realize that not much learning is taking place and want little to do with it. Experiential learning can change that.
With its roots in the very beginnings of education, from Socrates all the way to Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky, experiential learning took hold in modern education in the '60s and '70s with adventure education programs, Constructivist theory, and the Montessori model finding a place in U.S. education.
Research shows that group work is often a student's least favorite way to learn, in part because it is usually frustrating, divisive, and unsuccessful. Sadly, students prefer their role as passive learners even though a National Survey of Student Engagement shows that students are now being asked to work up to 60 percent of the time in small groups in postsecondary education. Still, the majority fail to recognize its value and are miming the actions without reaping the rewards.
However, when educators facilitate groups using experiential education from a student-centered approach, learning emerges from a foundation of empathy, mutual respect, and trust. The important shift from teaching or instructing to facilitating cannot be underestimated. It allows students to become both active participants in their learning and to gain a sense of ownership of the knowledge and experience gained.
When we intentionally design experiences, coupled with mindful and relevant reflection as a means to discuss "what" just happened, the experience can become the teacher. Discussion and processing about the "what" leads to generalizing the topics that come out of the experience. This leads to the "so what" phase where groups and facilitators can begin connecting what happened during the learning experience to real-world principles and events.
Once experience is generalized and connections are made to other areas of life, work, or school, students can begin focusing on the "now what" phase, asking "How can we use that?" Students plan the effective use and transfer of their new learning and/or knowledge to new situations. David Kolb and Roger Fry's model of the Experiential Learning Cycle has become one of the most widely used models to illustrate how experiential learning works.
Effective experiential group learning should follow these steps:
Immersion: The group is immersed in an activity or challenge that is difficult (if they say, "We can't do that!," you are on the right track), with very little help or guidance from the facilitator. In fact, the more the students are self-directed and on their own, the better.
Reflection: After a first attempt, the group comes together to reflect out loud with each other on successful strategies, what could be improved upon, and finally, what their next attempt will look like. The facilitator should not give answers but should ask the right questions to highlight observations, which may prompt more reflection from the group. Facilitator questions might be, "Did you notice ___________?" or "Why did that happen?" Reflection is the most important aspect of experiential learning and must be facilitated and guided at first to ensure internalization of the concepts.
Consensus: The group must reach a consensus on the next strategy before the next attempt. A consensus is when most agree and some commit to going along. Left alone, most small groups in a classroom fall into the "majority rules" mentality, which is not ideal for cooperative ventures. This is often where group work falls apart. The team becomes divided and does not "own" the next attempt and fractures into individuals or subgroups.
Reiteration: Repeat steps 1-4 until the group and the facilitator feel a plateau in performance or a time limit has been reached.
Finalization: The group offers generalized feedback and reflection, evaluates its performance, and the facilitator offers the same information.
Application: Students apply what they've learned to broader concepts in school and life. Facilitator questions might be, "Where else does this happen in life?" and "How can you use this?"
Try this experiential learning activity with your students:
Warp Speed: Materials needed are a soft object such as a yarn ball or stuffed animal. It should be large enough to hold onto easily and soft enough to be safe to toss. This activity is both fun and profound. Plan for 20-30 minutes.
Rules: First establish a pattern of how the object will be passed. The object must be tossed, not handed, to every person in the group. You must say the name of the person to whom you are passing it. It must be done quickly (we started with a goal of 30 seconds).
Guidelines for the facilitator: The rules are the only limiting factors, aside from safety concerns. It may feel like cheating if, for example, a student suggests (as one did) that they say all the names before they pass, to save time. If they ask if this kind of thing is allowed, simply restate the rules. Offer no help, as hard as that is for us! Listen and observe carefully, for you will need to model effective feedback for the first reflection. Point out that, in fact, these types of unusual ideas show the value of divergent thinking in group work.
What to expect: Set high expectations that the group is not likely to achieve in the first attempt, such as a 30-second goal for a class size of 25 students. During the first reflection, watch for criticism and ask if that helps or hurts the group's achievement of the goal. Let them offer observations and ideas for improvement. You are there to point out some things that you saw and ask if those were a factor. For example, when someone drops the object, if there are gasps of frustration or even blaming, ask if this helps or harms the group and watch as the excitement and confidence grow and they surpass what they thought would have been impossible just minutes before.
Key skills developed: Learning from experience, modifying behaviors to improve as a group, resilience in the face of new and difficult situations, and the value of collaborative group work.
Takeaways to look for: Negative criticism destroys the group's momentum. Divergent thinking and full participation and contribution of ideas improve group performance and encourage consensus-building for the implementation of ideas. Innovative thinking outside the box is a positive attribute of teamwork; it isn't cheating.
When planning additional experiential learning activities, refer to a list of identifying characteristics until you get the hang of it. There are tons of examples and books available, but be wary of those that focus on the one-and-done model.
The biggest obstacle for many teachers is making the shift to facilitating. "Facilitate "comes from the Latin root, "facil," which means "to make easy." That doesn't mean that it is easy to make this shift, because as teachers, we are used to providing direct instruction, answers, and facts, and we want to help our students succeed. Facilitating experiential learning activities requires us to frame the activity and then step out of the way to allow the learners to engage fully in the process. This often seems chaotic and can feel very uncomfortable to traditional classroom educators who may fear a loss of control.
When mindful attention is paid to framing the experience, participants in group experiential-learning activities typically welcome the opportunity to fully engage and connect with each other in real, meaningful dialogue. This openness can lead to rich, respectful discussions around challenging topics. Often groups and teams realize the barriers and obstacles they place in their own way and come to an agreement as to how they will impact change in order to become more efficient and effective.
Experience by itself can be fun, but coupled with these techniques, it will lead to profound changes in classroom culture, climate, and group work.