The Power of a Smart Group

Last week I was able to see some smart groups at work.

In the MYP, collaboration is a large part of our work. It’s one of our set of standards, producing some of our best work as a programme.  Just to name some products of collaboration, we work together to create the subject overview, interdisciplinary learning, the Community Project, a cohesive service as action continuum, an important cluster of skills in the ATL skills framework. To work well in groups is a large part of MYP life for both students and teachers.

Smart groups are not smart because they collectively have high IQs. What we mean by smart groups is “when we maximize the intelligence of the individual through the process of the group and achieve collectively what no one of us could have accomplished on our own” (Powell and Kusuma-Powell, 2013). The keys in this description of what makes a group ‘smart’ is in processes that are smart and in effective combination of skills, understanding and knowledge to create work that may not necessarily be possible when attempted individually.

Smart groups listen really well

Groups who work in smart ways have a high degree of active listening within their processes. They listen to each other and they clarify the process through paraphrasing and use probing questions to move thinking forward. One of the smart groups I observed last week was a group of Year 5s. They were doing an experiment in the lab, and this is what I overheard.

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Smart collaboration hinges on effective communication.

Student 1: I’m going to label these (substances) on the lid so we know which ones they are.
Student 2: (starts to arrange the bottles labeled with the substance names in a row) I’ll put these in the same order.
Student 3: How do we fit the names on the space?
Student 1: Maybe we should write the chemical label.
Student 2: I’ll say them and you write.
Student 3: I can check the order in our chart.

Later when the results were in, this was what happened.

Student 3: What color is this? Orange or pink?
Student 1: I think it’s more orange. (Looks at Student 2 and 3)
Student 2: I think it’s more red, but it’s too light to be red. Is that pink?
Student 3: Pink would have less yellow. It’s orange.
Student 1: So orange has yellow so it’s orange.

The dialog may seem commonplace, but if we look at what they say as a sign of how they listened to each other, it tells a different story. It tells us that they actively listened to what the other group members are saying, and that they are understand that effective collaboration means being mindful of self and others. When they were starting out, they each found something that each one could do, and told the group what they were doing to contribute to the work. In the later part of their work together, they used questions and paraphrasing to reach shared understanding and consensus.

The skills in the above conversation are essential to effective collaborative work. How many times have we been in meetings, where people talked above each other? How many times have we been in meetings where people listened only so they could share an autobiographical anecdote? In these situations, how much listening and learning is really going on?

Costa and colleagues (2013) describe real listening as:

  • non-autobiographical (not listening just to be able to share something from the listener’s life)
  • non-inquisitive (not listening just because of curiosity)
  • not so to be able to offer a solution or solutions

Smart groups also have ways to move thinking forward, using paraphrasing to clarify meaning and share understanding, but also using probing questions to help propel their connected thoughts.

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Understanding that dialog is a way for all to share understanding, and being OK with not having to come to a decision at the end of dialog.

Collaboration skills, like many ATL skills, do not have an ‘ON’ button that gets activated with age. They are skills that need to be learned. The group of students in the science lab were on to something, but their skills have a long way to go yet. Imagine if they learned how to listen actively, design a process that allows each group member to contribute, and use questioning in more sophisticated ways.

What might that look like?

Adult groups that worked well together last week spent some time looking at their subject overviews to see the spiral of concepts in their subjects.

Both groups used protocols, one group to identify the balance of related concepts and the other group to identify technology integration in each unit so that they could make recommendations for policy. Although their meeting goals were different, here are the similarities they shared.

  • Both groups realized that the meeting purpose was to learn and share what they understood, so they set out to have a dialog
  • Both groups used protocols based on the goal of their dialog
  • Both groups made their thinking visible through products that documented their shared understanding
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Making collaborative thinking visible through meeting products.

In addition, these groups practiced some essential norms for collaboration (Garmston & Wellman, 2013):

  • Pausing and taking turns speaking
  • Taking turns speaking shows they were paying attention to self and others
  • Paraphrasing to clarify
  • Asking questions to probe for clarity
  • Putting ideas on the table
  • Using data to illustrate
  • Presuming positive intentions

Like all skills, collaboration skills get better with purposive rehearsal. The groups used here as examples did not get to be smart groups quickly; they had to practice effective skills of collaboration over and over, getting better each time they deliberately practised these skills.

Part of the elegance of the MYP framework is that its standards and practices, which adults enact, reflect the approaches it aims to teach its students. Our students inquire, and in programme implementation we also inquire into best practices. Our students co-construct understanding, and so do we as we collaboratively plan and reflect toward coherence in the programme. Mirrors of one another, we might strengthen our approaches to learning as our students do the same.

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