(This is the relatively concise version of this post, relatively light on the preaching. To see the full post, with more preaching and more details about the challenge, click here).
I’m sure this has been written about in a thousand other places, but I have some recent evidence to support the idea that small teams that orient themselves in physical shapes conducive to communication will outperform teams that do not. Facilitating a handful of sections of 9th graders attempting a 30 minute challenge (ostensibly to post a link in a forum to a shared Google Doc), in every case the winning team was the one that oriented itself in physical space for better communication, and in every case it was a blowout win. I also have some assertions about the need to design our instruction of all content to explicitly include the development of critical skills (21st century skills, etc. etc.).
Now to the findings. Here are examples of two of the classes, and how they arranged their seating for the group challenge.
Following image: In a classroom with a big square-cornered horseshoe, the team that huddled at one corner demolished the other team, which was spread far apart.
Following image: In a room with individual desks originally arranged in typical grid format, facing front—it was the team that arranged a circle that demolished the other, which had brought their desks closer together, but remained facing forward.
The obvious hypothesis is that the winning arrangements allows for better communication—likely through the simple fact, in my thinking, that the team members can see each other, and thus pick up on the preponderance of communication signals that are non-verbal. What are they communicating? Likely many things, but my suspicion is that checking for comprehension is paramount to success, because that is what allows for any needed help to be expeditiously delivered. (Of course, dear scientists out there, it is also possible that the physical orientation of successful teams is a result of the already superior team-working skills of the winning teams, but I think the random sampling of the team formation addresses this issue).
There are many other critical skills students can internalize through such activities, and I think that we are remiss as teachers if we are thinking explicitly only of the content we are covering. Yes, I need all these students to be able to use the cloud resources we covered in this exercise, but that “content” is not nearly as important in my mind as what they learned about teamwork and communication. Further, I would argue, and I think the research strongly supports, that this “content” is learned better when it is done in conjunction with social interaction and the employment of various other “critical skills” (see 21st Century Skills, Blooms Taxonomy, etc.).
It was amazing how easily we were able to predict the outcome, every time, within the first 30 seconds of the challenge, based on how the students oriented themselves in space. Except for one, and this was interesting. We had our first class where both teams oriented themselves into team-friendly shapes, and myself and the other teacher in class commented to each other that this was going to be the first close match. Our prediction held, and the team that won did so just barely (whereas all other classes saw blowouts, with the well-oriented team soundly defeating the other). Interestingly, we were still able to predict within two minutes of the 30 minute challenge which of the two well-oriented teams would win, and this was done based on the amount of eye contact, chatter, and getting up to walk over to another team member the team exhibited (all manifestations of the behavior of checking for and assisting in comprehension between teammates, as mentioned above.)
By explicitly having group / team dynamics as part of the learning objectives of this lesson, and by allowing the students to experience the inherent trials and triumphs therein, I believe we were able to be more successful in growing these critical communication, teamwork, and meta-cognitive skills than if these skills were not an explicit part of the lesson’s focus and design.