One of my favorite lessons I taught occurred towards the end of my Othello unit. My classroom focused on the theme of “betrayal.” To extend this discussion with my students, I broke them into groups and handed each group the same handful of scenarios, including the two below:
Scenario 1: “Growing up, you and your best friend always fantasized about forming a band. Your fictional band name was The Winding Road. You drifted apart after attending different high-schools. Later, when you reconnect in college, you hear that she’s playing in a band by that name.”
Scenario 2: “Your adult brother comes over to your home for dinner, and casually asks that you ‘hold’ something for him for a day or so. You agree, and place the package in your closet without opening it. A few days later, your home is searched by police, the package is confiscated, and you are arrested for illegal drug possession. Your brother is nowhere to be found.”
The students read each scenario and placed them on a "Continuum of Betrayal" from bad to worst. After the groups had time to work, we came together as a class and mapped how each group ranked the betrayals. There was an incredible discussion (and civil argument!) of this spectrum (and each group’s interpretation of it), which led to our establishing a “Betrayal Continuum,” something that was easily projected onto our reading.
However, during my reflection time—which was mostly reveling in the glory of a successful lesson—I realized I didn’t know the answer to this question: In the group work period, how did each group of 4 or 5 come to consensus on their rating?
I’m sure you’ve been here before: you build a great lesson with a strong message, but inevitably, the passionate, outspoken students may get so involved that your quieter students may deflate and relinquish control. They have a moment where they realize, “It’s not worth it; I’ll just listen.” And thus we arrive at a point where we must acknowledge certain “Group Work Truths”:
- Group work often has a reputation for being stressful.
- There are usually active members and passive members; those who excel in leading others and those who relinquish control. This was recently explained to me as “Hogs and Logs”—neither is a desired behavior.
- Yet, collaboration is a necessary 21st-Century skill for success in College and Career Readiness.
- Group work, when done well, is the most authentic and rewarding way to prepare students to be successful in the classroom, at home, in sports, in their jobs, and in their relationships.
We can agree that group work is a necessary skill... so how do we do it successfully? One crucial element of group work success is often absent, and it’s not rubrics, peer reviews, or desk arrangement: it’s the lack of an explicit definition of what consensus looks like.
The definition of consensus is the ability for each member of the group to confidently say the following:
“My ideas have been heard and understood.”
“I have listened and understood the ideas of others, even if I don’t agree.”
“Our final decision may not be my first choice, but it’s something I can support.”
“I can and will support our choice, rather than sabotage it, in order to move forward.”
Now that we've brought clear definition to "consensus," how can we make this definition tangible for our students?
- Consider posting the above statements at the forefront of the room, and explicitly calling attention to them before group work.
- A powerful example could be inviting your colleagues or a group of older students into the room for a “fishbowl” discussion, where your students observe the conversation. Ask students to point out examples of being heard and not heard; of holding to opinions gracefully; and of expressing disagreement without being dismissive or unkind.
- Ask students to observe discussions in their daily life: at the lunch table, in another class, or in their personal lives. Through observation, they will learn to be better at spotting behaviors of “hogs and logs,” and of balancing the need to be heard with the need for cooperation.
- Incorporate specific examples into your observations. If you see behavior in the classroom that particularly excels at consensus-making, call it out explicitly. See behavior that’s decidedly counterproductive? Acknowledge it anonymously, and allow students to reflect on their actions.
In my Othello lesson, I felt such success and triumph: Look at that engagement! They’re actually disappointed that the bell rang! But did I really get an accurate temperature reading on all of my students? Were there some “logs” that had opinions but didn’t feel empowered to express them? Could this lesson have been made better for my quieter learners? The simple step of articulating a class definition of consensus takes this lesson from engaging to transformative, and empowers all students to be heard.