Book Reflection: Designing Groupwork by Elizabeth Cohen

During PCMI this summer, I mentioned that I was having trouble getting all of my students to see each of their classmates as genuinely valuable group members. A fellow participant recommended the perfect book for me: Designing Groupwork by Elizabeth Cohen. It was published in 1994 and yet, so much of it was new to me.

The crux of Cohen’s book is that group work is an excellent method for fostering students’ conceptual understanding, collaboration skills, and oral language skills, and needs to be implemented alongside strategies that deconstruct status hierarchies in the classroom.

There is a newer 3rd edition….but I accidentally read the 2nd edition.

I hadn’t heard the term “status” used in relation to K-12 classroom dynamics before and the term alone made it easier for me to describe and reflect on some of the problematic behaviors I’ve seen in my classroom. (For clarity, here is the definition of status from Strength in Numbers by Ilana Horn: “Status is the perception of students’ academic capability and social desirability.”)

Cohen explains that if teachers don’t attend to issues of status, implementing group work can:
– Let “the rich get richer.” High status kids tend to talk and collaborate more which leads to higher growth on. tests while lower status kids don’t talk as much and miss out on learning.
– Limit the success and learning of the whole group. Kids with a lower status speak less and when they do speak their ideas are often ignored which leads to the group missing out on important and useful ideas.
– Reinforce stereotypes and racist/sexist/ableist beliefs that kids bring to school with them.

Sadly, I have seen each of these play out in my classroom. Thankfully, now that I know better, I can do better.

Three takeaways from Cohen’s book that I am going to implement this year:

  1. Strong classroom norms for cooperation can reduce the issues of status.
    While I often use Sara Vanderwerf’s 100s game to discuss what good group work looks, feels, and sounds like. I’d like to try some new activities this year that highlight more specific norms. Cohen suggests several “training activities” that can be used to help develop norms. For example, Cohen discusses “Broken Circles” as an activity to teach the norms of “[being] sensitive to the needs of others” and “[focusing] on giving rather than taking or showing off.” She also emphasizes the need to reinforce norms and give groups feedback on their adherence to the norms.

2. The “multiple ability treatment” can disrupt status issues within groups
Cohen explains that our society tends to conceptualize intelligence in a linear and narrow sense that feeds into ideas of status in classroom, but by expanding the idea of what it means to be intelligent and capable, teachers can prevent higher status students from dominating during group work. The “multiple ability treatment” was developed in 1982 by J. Tammivaara. It has two parts:

  1. When introducing a group work task, the teacher explicitly talks to students about all of the varied abilities that are needed for a task.
  2. The teacher also creates a “mixed set of expectations” by saying, “None of us has all of these abilities. Each one of us has some of these abilities” (122).

Research has shown that this promotes equal status interactions during group work, meaning the higher status students don’t dominate the conversation.

3. Assigning competence can increase status
The idea here is simple. By drawing attention to the competence of low status students, teachers can elevate others’ expectations and perceptions of the students. Cohen shares three guidelines:

“An effective assignment of competence has three critical features:
1. Evaluations must be public
2. The evaluations must be specific, referring to particular intellectual abilities/skills.
3. The abilities/skills of the low status student must be made relevant to the group task. ” (132)

I recommend this book! It is well written and has much more to offer than what I’ve touched on here, such as observation tools and student surveys for helping teachers identify status issues in their classrooms.

Other notes:

(Oops…I read the second edition but just found a more recent edition from 2014….I may read that one too!)

I had never heard of Elizabeth Cohen before, and highly recommend reading about her here.

Always happy to hear from readers!