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Book Review: Productive Group Work: How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork, and Promote Understanding by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, & Sandi Everlove, ASCD, 2009
Judi Fenton

As a parent of daughters who have struggled with ill-conceived group work projects, I was very pleased to receive the book Productive Group Work in the mail last month from ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development). It is a thorough publication, one that was needed in the field.

Teachers are expected to create opportunities for students to work collaboratively in groups, yet we often ignore the fact that it is not easy to work collaboratively. We forget that we must explicitly teach students how to work together in order for them to learn through the process.

In the book, the authors make a case for the need to set up the conditions for group work to be productive. In their introduction they say, “When teachers get the circumstances right, something remarkable happens: Students educate one another and end up knowing more than they would have working alone.” (p 1)

So, what do teachers need to do in order to create the conditions under which group work can lead to positive outcomes? Planning for group work must include not only academic outcomes you wish students to achieve, but also social outcomes that lead students to knowing themselves and their group members more fully. We must also make provisions for grading students on their individual contributions to the project, as well as the group’s work as a whole.

There is a lot to think about when planning for group work. Frey, Fisher, and Everlove provide a series of thoughtful questions on planning, preparing students for group work, designing group work, organizing learning groups, evaluating group work, and dealing with student concerns about group work. These questions can be a wonderful guide for you in preparing for productive group work in your own classroom.

They begin with the basis for all good teaching: asking what you plan to teach, and what skills students will need to have in order to complete the project you are assigning. They also ask us to identify which aspects of the curriculum will most lend itself to group work. These are important questions to answer before embarking on assigning any project to be completed in a group. (Actually, these questions should be answered when determining curriculum and how it will be taught in general!)

The authors move on to what students need to be able to do in order to work with others in a group. These are the group process questions – including what skills students need to learn such as active listening, giving and receiving feedback, and dealing with conflicts. If you do not thoughtfully consider how you expect students to interact and teach them how to do so, they will not have a good experience, and they will miss a potentially powerful opportunity to learn about how they can better interact with others.

Frey and colleagues go on to ask us to consider how we will design the group work so that it will take students where we want them to be. The authors discuss creating interdependence amongst students, organizing fair division of tasks within the group, differentiating group tasks to meet individual needs while still working to standards, scaffolding for students who need it, etc. Related to designing the work are considerations of how you will organize the groups themselves, in terms of group size, group diversity, what supports groups will need, how they will manage conflicts, and how you and the groups will monitor progress.

Evaluation by teacher, group, and individual students; creating expectations, and a rubric that includes both content of the work and group process is the focus on the next set of questions. Perhaps, this is one of the most important aspects of group work to students—how can we communicate to them that we are focused on the level of work that emerges from the group, but are still sensitive to the learning needs of the individual? Last, the authors directly confront how to deal with student concerns about group work—what do we do when a group doesn’t work? What can we do with the student who works best on her own?

This book is a comprehensive look at how to make group work successful. I highly recommend that you use it as a resource for creating group work that is purposeful, that students feel is fair, and through which the desired curricular and social outcomes are met.

Productive Group Work: How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork, and Promote Understanding by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, & Sandi Everlove, ASCD, 2009

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to e-mail me.


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