Context: Students benefit in multiple ways from Groups Work and Self-Managing Teams, particularly when Teacher Selects Teams. Teams with diverse members and perspectives are often more creative or productive but face special challenges (Mannix and Neale, 2005). Thus, students need to learn to work effectively in teams with diverse members. Note that there are many forms of diversity, including gender, sexual identity, race and ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, religion, and language, but also background, abilities, interests, and personality. You want to maximize learning and minimize team problems in such settings.
Forces & Problem: It can be difficult to form effective, diverse teams. Student-selected teams often consist of friends or students who are similar to each other in various ways. Teams can be often more diverse and effective when Teacher Selects Teams, but this can be difficult. One team member who is different from the others might feel awkward, isolated, or left out. Even if teammates try to be inclusive, people might feel awkward or be reluctant to work with those who are different. This is a particular challenge when the difference has been the focus of stereotypes or discrimination, such as African-Americans in the United States, or “untouchable” castes in India. These problems might be more common and more severe with less experienced students, but all students should learn to work effectively in diverse teams, and understand the benefits and challenges of such situations.
Solution & Consequences: Therefore, avoid teams or other situations with just one student who is different. Instead, try to form teams with several students who are different, even if they are different in different ways. Ideally, every student has a teammate who shares their difference (e.g. same gender, ethnic background, etc.). Alternatively, try to form teams with several students who differ in different ways (e.g. two different ethnic backgrounds), so the team is not dominated by one category of student.
Discussion: Don’t Isolate Team Members is one of many factors to consider and balance when Teacher Selects Teams, and is also relevant when students select teams. No team assignments are perfect, and students might have differences that are not apparent to you or their teammates (e.g. sexual identity, religion). Take particular care with students who are different in several ways – these overlapping or intersecting identities can present particular challenges for the student and their teammates. As you get to know your students better, and they gain experience, you can experiment with other team assignments, and help them to Think About How You Work to recognize and work through issues, so that their teamwork skills will improve.
Don’t Isolate Team Members also applies when you Avoid Extremes in Teams. One weak student might not ask questions, contribute to the team, or benefit from the experience. One strong student might do most of the work, feel overconfident, or become resentful, and the other students might not contribute or benefit.
Examples: In a class that is mostly male, have some teams with two females and other teams with none, instead of teams with one female. In a classroom with students from different ethnic minorities, put several students from different minorities together on a team. Together they represent a larger fraction of the team, reducing isolation from the others.
A conversation or email exchange can help. Thus, with a few students from another country (or of a different gender), you might ask them if they prefer to be on the same or different teams. Some might be wary, and others might welcome the opportunity.
For short-term, low-stakes assignments to help students learn to work in diverse teams, identify and then deliberately separate students by category. Thus, in a class that is mostly male students aged 18-22, each team has a female student, an older student, and a student from another country or ethnic group. Emphasize that it is important to learn to work in a diverse team, and provide additional oversight and support.
For a longer-term, high-stakes assignments, have each student submit the names of a few teammates they most want, and a few they least want. Then, try to assign teams so that every student has at least one teammate they want, and no more than one they don’t want.
Author: Clif Kussmaul
Publication: C Kussmaul. 2017. Patterns in classroom facilitation for Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL). HILLSIDE Proc. of Noridc Conf. on Pattern Lang. of Programs. 17. (Mar-Apr 2017)