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Small-group activities enable participants to learn cooperation skills. These activities can also help participants learn to resolve differences among themselves.
Start group work slowly. Assign two participants to be part of a small group. You may wish to add a staff assistant or volunteer. Each member has a specific assignment for the group work. The staff assistant should facilitate group interaction but not direct it. The teacher should monitor the progress of the small groups. Sample participant roles in small groups can include:
Be sure to provide extra assistance to those participants who have trouble functioning in small groups. As participants master working in this very small group, move to a three person group or three participants and one adult, if you desire. Eliminate the adult when you think the group can function on its own and gradually add more participants. Avoid having more than five people in a small group.
Help participants become conscious of the skills necessary for small group work. Do not expect them to work well in groups without help. One way for students to examine individual behavior within the group is by assigning participant “observers” to monitor group progress of the assigned task. The report of the “observers” provides the group members with an opportunity to focus on how they handled an issue.
“Observers” should look for specific behaviors targeted by the instructor and identify how group members dealt with problems they encountered. For example, an “observer” could be examining the group for their mastery of communication skills. When reporting to the group, observers should present their observations as descriptively and objectively as possible.
As the size of the group increases, the range of ability, expertise, and skills increases. The likelihood of having someone who has special knowledge that will be helpful to the group task is greater. However, the opportunity for misbehavior also increases.
The larger the group, the more skillful the participants must be in giving everyone an opportunity to speak. Few participants in your program will already have well- developed group skills. Therefore, the skills must be carefully taught and practiced over a long period of time.
The shorter the time available to complete the lesson, the smaller the group should be. Smaller groups are more effective because they take less time to get organized, operate more quickly, and provide a better opportunity for each participant to contribute.
It is recommended that teachers place high, medium, and low achieving participants within the same group. More creative thinking and greater perspectives for discussion seem to occur in heterogeneous groups.
In order to build constructive relationships between male and female participants and participants from different cultural backgrounds, each group should include gender and cultural heterogeneity, if possible.
There are many useful ways teachers may assign participants to learning groups. The easiest way is to assign participants randomly by having them count off. The ones should go together, the twos should go together, and so forth. However, at the beginning of small group work, it is better for you to create groups based on the dynamics of your class.
Some teachers keep learning groups together for an entire program. It is helpful to allow groups to remain together long enough for them to be stable and successful. Breaking up groups that are having trouble functioning effectively is often counterproductive because the participants do not learn the skills they need to resolve problems in collaboration. Instead, explain that small group work will help participants develop the skills necessary to communicate and cooperate. You may consider adding an adult to the group to facilitate communication amoung group members.
Typical problems that groups face and that teachers and observers should look for include
(Adapted from the LRE/JJ Manual, NDTP, 1993; Circles of Learning by Johnson and Johnson; and from Children and Their World; Teaching Elementary Social Studies by Welton and Mellan)
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