Dysfunctional Classes, Part VI: Social Success and Grouping


This is the fifth part of a series from John Jensen on how to effectively manage dysfunctional classrooms. [Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V]

Enable your students to experience social success through learning. You want to align their basic work at learning with their social needs. They need to 1) experience competence, and 2) have peers recognize it. This elementary model drives all the games they play that aren’t sheer chance, and it’s the intuitive measure they use as they present themselves to each other: “I’m on top of this, and I want you to acknowledge that.” We can help them meet this need through learning by the following steps:

John Jensen, Ph.D.

1. Whatever you teach them that has cognitive content (i.e. even drawings have cognitive content), frame it as question and answer.

2. Have them write out a complete, comprehensive answer so they can learn it perfectly. Go over everything with the class so everyone understands it.

3. Assign them in partner pairs to practice it so they both know it. This step brings their personal learning into a social arena. They’re stimulated by the expectation of another student facing them to whom they must try to make sense. They want to feel that they’ve risen to the challenge presented. They have the complete written answer before them, and now facing a peer who asks them the question, they’re set up for success.

4. They practice it back and forth until they can both verify that their partner knows it, and as time allows, retrieve answers back to the beginning of the term.

5. You deepen social relevance by arranging performances. Write out all questions on separate slips and drop them in a bag. Every day or two, for a few minutes draw a slip, draw a name, the student stands and performs the answer, and everyone applauds.

Partner practice consolidates the learning, and performing it deepens their claim on it. Applause is probably the strongest form of peer recognition. You can also count up all the questions they learn and post these growing numbers on a wall chart.

Organization groups. Students are anxious to be accepted by their peers, so an easy yes is to offer to organize them in small groups with their friends. The process can help you penetrate the hidden influences among them, and enlist the strongest students as allies.

Ask everyone to take out a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle. They write their name at the top, and above the left column, “Who would I like to be in group with?” and on the right, “Who could I best learn from?” The first question taps friendliness and the second respect, but both predict “Who will I most likely cooperate with and allow to influence me?’

Explain to them that you’re going to make up groups and will try to arrange them as best you can with others they want to be with. Ask them not to share their nominations with others. Only you will see the slips they turn in, and assure them that they can name as many as they want. Before they turn their paper in, ask them to check that their name is written at the top, or you won’t be able to tell who nominates whom.

Two issues are critical for the success of the groups. One is where to place students who relate poorly to others, are on the social margins of the group, and are most likely to be rejected. The other concerns student leaders who could help you shape the attitude of the class. To gather the information you need, sit down with all the slips students turn in. On a large piece of paper, make up a chart containing a row and a column for each student. Take one student’s list at a time, go to his/her row, and make a tally mark in the column of each other student they name. Do that with all the slips turned in.

The resulting chart provides a visual picture of students liking for each other. Those most named—having the most tallies in their column—are the most influential and will be your group leaders. Those least named are the students who most need careful placement and support. Begin your group assignments with these. Give them their top picks, particularly if they chose influential students who chose them in return or even if they didn’t. As you assign the remaining students, check their selections against your own knowledge of those who don’t get along, or who lead others into trouble. Try to form the most support around the students least socially connected, aiming for a group size of four or five. The former is ideal for conducting partner practice within the group. Having three potential partners offers a mix of stability and variety. If any students have an early problem in their group, try to adjust quickly but move stronger students rather than those least named. The latter have already had their share of rejections, and moving them is one more of the same.

Take your most-named group leaders aside, and in every way you can, run the class through them. First have them lead their group in picking a group name. Make them responsible for conveying, collecting, and accounting for assignments. Instead of making announcements and instructions to the class yourself, meet with your group leaders, pass the word to them, they pass it on to their group, and lead their group’s cooperation. Have them plot learning and concentration stats as a group. Do performances of learning a group at a time. Make them responsible for supplies for their group, monitor their group’s behavior, and round them up after a recess. Get group members thinking “we” in all ways you can, and the leaders thinking “my” group. Appreciate the latter’s effort, and point out ways they can help their group with issues of attitude, behavior, and learning. Consult with them over any issues arising with their group members.

Most classes can probably be influenced with less than the complete array of activities described above. For a significant change in students’ thinking, however, we’re more likely to succeed as we engage multiple influences that nudge their energy into a common channel.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at jjensen@gci.net.

References. “At Manual Arts High, a caring teacher is at the end of his rope,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 24, 2011, and also, “A Teacher’s Worst Nightmare, “ Walt Gardner, Edweek, Sept. 27, 2011.

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at jjensen@gci.net.