Teaching with Student Teams

Last year we made a change in our daily lessons that impacted student learning more than any other method that we’ve tried through 15 plus years of combined teaching. We started that school year with a one-to-one device classroom, and were in the process of changing all aspects of our daily lessons to student centered online resources that involved very little direct instruction. We wanted to use student teams, but were unaware of just how beneficial it would be. What transpired over the last year is learning that is student centered, focuses on 21st century skills, and allows all students to grow through differentiated lessons.

Our first step was to break the class into teams. We were not concerned with the exact grouping of students because we wanted the teams to be fluid and evolve as the students needed them to change. Student leaders emerged in each group, and were often, but not always, strong academic leaders. We replaced content based bell ringers with short team based games that had students working before the bell, working together, and actively engaged in a way that carried through the remainder of class. Without any teacher directing, the student teams switched leaders when necessary, established their own set of rules and norms, assigned themselves homework, and worked together to assist students who struggled with aspects of learning. Our class looked more and more like the classroom we envisioned in our teacher prep program rather than what we had grown accustomed to seeing through our first several years in our actual classroom. Student teams allowed us to have the class we had always wanted.

The teams evolved in stages:

Step 1: Divide the class into 2 groups (to make things more manageable)

At the first stage we just wanted to establish the idea of leaders. The leader is responsible for making sure their group knows what to do. We explain the directions at the start of class and then any questions about "What are we doing?" "What's next?" etc. go to the leader only. We only address academic questions as the teacher.

Step 2: Leaders are responsible for more classroom management.

Challenges (our version of bell ringers) are the responsibility of the leader. They are tasked with getting everyone started, and then everyone finished. We usually have a reward for the most effective team (some choice in assignments, extra time, etc.) and the leader knows their participation grade comes from leadership.

Step 3: The student groups get autonomy when they show they accept their group roles.

We allow them to make rules for their group in order to be more productive.

Our initial goal in using teams was to stress 21st century skills: creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, communication, and collaboration. Once again, we had no idea just how well the student team format would actually play out. What we were most surprised about was just how well the teams operated outside of class content. Initially, students would sit back and wait for directions when the teams were used within a content specific context because that’s what they had grown accustomed to through nine years of formal education. Where the teams really soared was in all other aspects of learning that take place within a daily lesson. While our peers struggle to get class started, our team leaders were checking the daily lesson online before class even started and got their teammates started upon walking in the door. The teams were collaborating to solve team challenges and develop more efficient ways to beat the opposing teams. The most amazing experience, and one that most of our peers still don’t believe, was when entire teams were agreeing to rules of no cell phone distractions or restroom passes (2 of the most common distractions for non-engaged students).

While student led classroom management made our lives as teachers much easier, the most rewarding for us was how much growth we started to see amongst all levels of students. Our new approach allowed us to differentiate learning to students of all skill levels. It also allowed us move around the room, provide real time feedback, and ensure that all students are learning. Students who lacked the skills necessary to easily demonstrate the standards were given heavily scaffolded lessons, while the most advanced students had to demonstrate new skills of increasing rigor. Our class expectation was to ask a teammate before asking a teacher, and it led to students collaborating on assignments or getting help from a more advanced teammate. Our classroom had truly become a community of learners, working together to benefit all members of the class.