Much of the work that my students will be doing in STEM class this year will require them to work collaboratively with their peers. Working in groups is challenging for many students (and adults!) and, like most things, practice does lead to improved performance. However, as many people (myself included) with past negative groupwork experiences will tell you, simply grouping students and telling them work together does not always lead to effective outcomes or equal contributions.
Last year, I read a wonderful book all about facilitating improved collaborative experiences called Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom (Cohen & Lotan). [More about the Book] While the book covers many aspects of designing purposeful groupwork, my biggest aha! from the text was the suggestion to conduct explicit “groupwork training exercises” with students. While I often required my second graders to work in groups to complete tasks and assignments, I realized that I was just throwing the students together, providing a few platitudes about how to get along, and then expecting them to know how to work as a group. Cohen and Lotan argue that, far too often, this is the norm in our classrooms — we expect that students will know how to work together when, in fact, they have never been shown or taught what that entails.
One of the training exercises that the authors suggest is called “Broken Squares.” Here’s how it works. Teams are made — I’ve found that groups of three or four work best — and each team member receives an envelope. Inside the envelopes are a variety of puzzle pieces. When these pieces are combined with those of their teammates, they make a set of squares.
Sounds pretty simple, right? Two rules take this task from one that could be dominated by one member of the team to an activity that (literally) requires all hands on deck. First, no one may speak during the duration of the activity. Second, the only pieces you can touch are your own. Taken together, these two caveats require students to come up with diverse ways to communicate and ensure that everyone needs to participate in order to be successful.
I’m currently using this task with my three classes of third graders and finding that it’s just the right amount of challenge for them. This is the fourth time that I’ve done this task (I’ve also used it with 2nd graders and 4th & 5th graders) and I find that, despite being a pretty simple task, it never fails to fully engage the student participants. A hush will fall over the classroom, punctuated only by gasps of excitement as a first square is successfully created. This has, thus far, held true even in very boisterous, outgoing groups.
Following our completion of the activity, we spend some time debriefing the task and discussing its connection to teamwork. I’ve used the following questions to help prompt my students to share their thoughts on the activity:
- How did your group go about solving the puzzles?
- What was challenging about this activity?
- What strategies did your group use that helped you make progress?
- What does this task teach us about effective teamwork?
- What did you learn in this activity that you might use the next time you work in a group?
Interested in trying “Broken Squares” with your learners? You can use the link here to get more information and access to the templates I used for my square sets (https://web.stanford.edu/class/ed284/csb/Broken/BC&Stext.doc) This link also contains another activity — “Broken Circles” — that is the same task, but uses circles instead of squares and which I’ve found a bit easier for younger learners.
I copied my “Broken Square” templates onto cardstock and used a different color for each complete set. This makes all the difference when you find a stray puzzle piece while you’re cleaning up!
When preparing for the task, don’t agonize over how to divide up the pieces — just make sure that no participant can create a complete square from their set of pieces.