For many teachers, dividing a class into small groups and ensuring high degree of engagement in group tasks indicate successful implementation of co-operative teaching methods. This is a simplistic view of the whole phenomenon. Lack of proper understanding of group dynamics lead to situations where only a few students benefit from co-operative learning assignments, one or two outspoken students dominate discussions, inferior quality products are produced, and hostility prevails due to misunderstanding (negative group dynamics) among peers.
An effective implementation of co-operative teaching procedures requires not only the technical know-how of applying them. More importantly, teachers must know how to deliberately leverage on principles of group processes that determine the eventual success of group work. Students cannot be expected to get together and work on producing high quality learning products if they are not made aware of the social-emotional consequences of working with their peers.
A typical group work setting involves five psychological stages, namely, forming, storming, norming, performing, and self-renewal. While most people are unaware of their existence, these five stages manifest themselves in a variety of ways in different classroom situations and contexts. The individual and collective experiences of group members at each stage determine success or failure. It is also important for members of the group to move from one stage to another, without skipping or failing in any one.
Usually, teachers assume that successful groups accomplish their tasks well because they have no problem forming and performing. Contrary to this belief, groups only succeed when they go through the complete circle of the five-stage process. This is the reason why students should not be rushed when they work in co-operative groups.
At the initial forming stage, group members need to feel that they are accepted by others. Teachers need to be careful with group compositions, particularly if students are allowed to choose their own members. Normally, high performing students tend to team up with others with similar abilities. This should be avoided because it does not represent real-world experiences which are characterized by high degree of diversity.
Teachers need to appropriately mix students to form balanced groups. The first stage is the most difficult to pass because students from different backgrounds, abilities, preferences and expectations learn to trust and accept each other in a fairly short period of time. This is an important milestone to cross – once successful, the next four stages can be achieved fairly easily. When group members do not feel accepted, the resulting performance suffers.
Small group members who feel accepted proceed to discussing about ideas that relate to the task. This involves perspective taking, agreeing to disagree (dissolving differences), taking turns, listening with respect, playing distinct roles and sharing responsibilities. If unsuccessful, the group will be characterized by high level of hostility among members, power struggles, domination of roles and dissatisfaction with division of duties.
Once differences are settled and division of roles and responsibilities are accepted, students in small groups proceed to creating a work culture that defines their unique individual and group identities. Although a group is made up of individuals, norming allows them to become united. A united group is able to pursue academic goals more effectively than a disunited one.
If a group passes through each of the above-mentioned stages successfully, they would have little or no problem performing the assigned task. The quality of performance is dependent upon the collective effect of all the stages on individual members of the group.
Lastly, giving students an opportunity to reflect on their individual as well as collective contributions to the group is vital to ensure continual improvement. Students could be asked to reflect on the quality of learning products (outcomes) and interpersonal interactions. Ending co-operative learning sessions without this stage is like having a good meal without dessert.