One of the most effective ways to engage students in any task is to allow them to work and play together with their friends. The entire process won't be easy but with proper guidance most students will learn to interact appropriately.
Being a classroom and music ensemble teacher for several years, I learned that collaboration is not an innate skill that each student would know how to go about. Most of the time, teachers would create a task for group work and then students were either entrusted completely or guided each and every step. I was guilty of this during my early years of teaching. I would say it has been a typical practice even when I was a student. Teachers assumed that students knew or have learned to collaborate. We forget that just like any other skills, it needs to be explicitly taught or scaffolded.
While I continue to learn more strategies in helping students learn this essential skill; I have a few things that already worked for my students and me.
1. KNOW each student
In a typical class of 15-18 students in a class, this is easier to accomplish. Most of the small chats during the class or between can facilitate this. In addition, the work of students can also be used to source out some information related to their interests, strengths, weaknesses or goals. Knowing them to an extent will allow us to develop the appropriate plan and materials for them to be engaged during group work.
2. Set CLEAR Expectations
With clear expectations, students will less likely be confused. We know what students do when they are confused. Acting up or distracting others would be a common practice for students who are unsure of what, how, where and why they need to work on a specific task. This can be as complicated as understanding the process to the most simple thing of not being able to bring the required materials for the class.
The communication of these expectations is an essential part of students' learning and dynamics. I would like to give this more time (in one of my future blogs) by defining what these expectations are in the perspectives of our students.
3. Define ROLES
This is another broad and exciting element of collaborations. How many times were you faced with a situation wherein you will have the same leader or each group member would end up blaming one member from the group? How about a member who would complained of being overloaded with work while the others had less? Most often this conflict creates gaps and biases among students when they are given similar collaborative opportunities. Can we avoid this? I would say these can be minimized, if not completely achieved.
When assigning roles, make sure to balance between tapping on potential and maximizing strengths. Teachers need not be the sole facilitator, but students themselves can be taught on how to assign roles. They know each other better. In addition, it would be very helpful if students are knowledgeable enough to make better decisions on what could work or sound better.
(music class) When students are working on tone color, students need to mindful that although the number of members in their group is considered, balance and tone quality matter as well.
(band/ensemble) If one instrumental/vocal section has more, students usually based their decisions on who they like to be with. This can be avoided if students understand the concept of melody vs. accompaniment. Usually, when this is explained to them, it becomes easier for them to flexible.
4. MIX Grouping
Let's not forget this! This applies to all disciplines and any type of task. Providing experiences for such would help students learn to work with different people. Aside from numerous strategies out there, it is important for them to hear from adults some values on this. I would often remind them that "it's a fact that we may not always like or love everyone in this class but we can always practice RESPECT for each other by learning to work together." Again, not a 100% guarantee all the time, but to an extent, it prepares their mind and hearts.
5. PLAN for HEALTHY Competition
This became one of my natural motivational strategy for students especially those who don't exert much effort in practicing skills needed for a performance. When two or more students are involved, it creates a natural "pressure" that they have to deliver to be acceptable in the group, avoiding embarrassment. And for those who are high-achievers, hearing the work of their peers or feedback from their teachers gives them the opportunities to refine their work to achieve excellence.
During music recitals, this has been a practice among our music team to pair up students who are not practicing with students are fast learners. With this comes other factors like age, chemistry and selection of suitable pieces.
In cases when competition becomes unhealthy, timely and proper adult guidance is still encouraged.
6. Develop RELATIONSHIP
One of the most basic and essential among all of these strategies is one's ability to develop a relationship among our students/colleagues. I believe that all of these become only easier if we have established some relationship with each other. Again, a lot of other things take into account before good relationship is established. Luckily, working with multiple grade levels gave me more time to get to know each student as they progress each year.