Science is a human endeavor, where people work together to ask and answer questions about the natural and material world. In the middle school classroom, this humanity is all too evident during group work when discussion devolves into heated arguments and students spend time finding the mass of their hand rather than concentrating on the task at hand.
Engaging in collaborative discussion (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6.1) in order to successfully plan and carry out investigations (SP3) requires practice and persistence. This lesson can be used to help students recognize their strengths and roles within a group to build more authentic and independent management of behavior during group work. Additionally, a group contract can help promote safety in the science lab by minimizing off-task behavior. For a related lesson, check out: Science Safety Public Service Announcement. Some interesting connections to crosscutting concepts include structure and function; cause and effect; systems and patterns. Collaborative groups are a complex system where a behavior pattern of any given member can cause certain effects. If every group member upholds the structure of the group (their assigned job, norm following), the group will function better.
In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson, assign students a number from 1 - 3. The number corresponds to one of the following three sentence starters. Students complete a 5-minute quick-write where they are challenged to keep pencils moving silently for the entire time.
1. Good group work looks and sounds like...
2. A group that isn't working well together looks and sounds like...
3. When a group doesn't work well together, the process feels...
After 5 minutes of writing time, students make a small group of three made up of students who answered each of the prompts by finding another student who answered the other two starters. Students sit in a circle and take turns sharing their ideas. For more rationale about the importance of using circles in discussion, refer to the Discussion Circles Reflection in this section.
The EXPLORE stage of the lesson is to get students involved in the topic so that they start to build their own understanding. Students explore the concept of group work by working with their lab group using the Group Work Student Handout to develop a contract that they will follow and refer to during future projects and investigations.
During this stage, students will:
1) Define Strengths and Challenges
2) Assign Jobs
3) Creating Commitments
4) Establishing Protocol for Solving Conflicts
5) Sign Contract
In order to facilitate this process, there are several student needs that can be addressed by using specific strategies. For example, when students define their strengths and challenges as seen here, students struggle with generating ideas.
A strategy that meets this need, so they may not be caught as off-guard as they were in the video, is by prepping students in advance by giving them the prompt for homework the night before or during a quiet reflection time at the beginning of class:
Think of two strengths and two challenges you have when working in groups.
Another way to facilitate the process is to provide support materials such as the: Student Laboratory Safety Instructions, which helps students think about possible jobs for each project or investigation and may help them generate their own commitments and problem-solving protocols based on existing classroom norms.
The EXPLAIN stage provides students with an opportunity to communicate what they have learned so far and figure out what it means. This stage of the lesson presents a great place for a quick formative assessment. Student groups present their contract: Group Work Contract Student Work Page 1 and Group Work Contract Student Work Page 2 during a conference with me, so that I can better understand what agreements they have made. At this time, if there are any revisions needed (such as unequal distribution of jobs, insufficient protocol to solve problems, students who are uncomfortable signing the contract because they didn't feel heard), we discuss and make compromises until the group reaches consensus about their contract.
The EVALUATION stage is for both students and teachers to determine how much learning and understanding has taken place. To accomplish this goal, there are several different approaches I have used.
One way I evaluate students is through ongoing performance assessments during our group work projects and investigations. Before all group work, students review their contracts to remind themselves of the jobs and commitments they have made. After investigations, students evaluate themselves and their group members in a "constructive negotiation" that results in a grade for safety and collaboration that I include in the grade book. By including this science practice as a grade, students realize that safety and collaboration in the laboratory is an integral part of successful science. Students use the Safety Assessment and the Safety Assessment Student Instructions protocol to facilitate this process. The ability for students to honestly (in most cases) evaluate their participation is a rewarding moment and makes for more authentic assessment.