Group Norms (part 1: establishing them)

NOTE: This is the sixth in a series of posts about Complex Instruction

One of the best mistakes I’ve made came by accident in 2007. At that point in my career, I had learned not to teach Group Roles, Member Qualities, and Norms all on the second day of school. I made a slide show (I think it was my first ever) for Group Norms, but when I went to show it to my class, the projector bulb was so dim that the font didn’t show up against the background (rookie mistake). I decided it would just be easier to open the document in Microsoft Word and show the students that way.

While I was at the computer, trying to find the file, my students started getting restless (as students are wont to do). To buy myself some time while I clicked through my far-too-layered filing system, I asked the students to think about the prior experiences they’d had working in groups. I think I gave them a prompt along the lines of “spend 90 seconds brainstorming norms that you’d like for group work… try to come up with norms that prevent some of the problems that have occurred when you’ve worked in groups before this class”. After I found the file and got ready to take the reigns again, I walked around and listened/read the students’ ideas.

What I heard and saw was so amazing that I immediately knew I would give the same prompt to every class I taught in the future.

I am only including a small sampling of the norms that students have suggested over the years because the list now is almost 500 suggested norms deep. Please remember that I typed these suggestions verbatim. As any veteran teacher knows, whenever you type student suggestions verbatim, you are bound to get some clunkers and some catfish, but the overall haul makes me excited and optimistic about the last decade’s worth of teenagers.

  • 2007
    • 1st Block suggestions:
      • Help absent members catch up
      • Wait—don’t leave group members behind
      • Complaining about lunch won’t make it come any sooner.
      • Make sure everyone understands the instructions
    • 3rd Block suggestions:
      • So that everyone understands, don’t just explain your answer—explain why.
      • Don’t be hard-headed. Compromise.
      • Don’t bring lunch drama into class.
      • When someone’s like really smart, don’t like make slower people feel like really slow or whatever. So… yeah.
    • 4th Block suggestions:
      • Don’t insist you are right. Listen to other people’s ideas.
    • 5th Block suggestions:
      • Be accepting of people that aren’t visual artists. [Editor: I teach at an arts school made up of students from over a dozen conservatories.]
      • Keep “outside” conversations outside.
    • 6th Block suggestions:
      • Some people want to learn concepts more deeply and don’t want to be rushed ahead.
  • 2008
    • 1st Block suggestions:
      • Don’t discriminate based on grade  [Editor: Most of my classes contain students from 4 grades.]
    • 2nd Block suggestions:
      • Don’t let one person do all the work
      • Don’t be scared to ask questions
    • 5th block:
      • Share your epiphanies  [Editor: one of my favorite ever!]
      • Don’t say you get it when you don’t
  • 2009
    • 5th Block suggestions:
      • Do your HW so that you are prepared to discuss with your group.
      • Don’t stress out. Stress makes it harder to understand.
      • Don’t share your stress.
    • 6th Block suggestions:
      • Don’t pull others into your vortex of distraction.
      • Don’t be afraid to share your answers, because if you’re wrong, you can still learn something.  [Editor: Just to reiterate–STUDENTS said these things. Every teacher that uses groups should give their students this prompt.]
      • Attendance is important—but STAY HOME if you’re sick.
  • 2010
    • Block 5
      • Make sure your blood sugar levels are fine so you don’t get grumpy.
      • Get enough sleep.
  • 2011
    • Block 6
      • Don’t be bossy and don’t be bullied.
      • If you’re having a problem with your group and you’re trying to resolve it, be open to hearing other people’s suggestions.
      • Saying it louder does not make you right.  [Confession: I remember paraphrasing this one.]
  • 2012
    • Block 1
      • Don’t be that person who copies off everyone else on the group test. Contribute.
      • If you’re having a bad day—don’t spread it. Do something nice for someone else—it will make you feel better.
    • Block 2
      • Just because you’re like really good at math doesn’t mean that everyone else is stupid.
      • Don’t be that person that gloats about grades.
    • Block 3
      • Contribute without taking over.
      • Don’t nag group members (this means you, too, Mr. H).
      • If you think you’re going to fail, you might. Have a positive attitude.
      • Don’t be that guy.
      • The majority is not always in the right.
  • 2013
    • Block 1
      • Disagree without being disagreeable. [Confession: I remember paraphrasing this one.]
      • We all think differently.
      • Stress cuts years off your life.
      • Bring your own supplies. By like the fourth time your table loans you supplies, it gets annoying.
      • Don’t take off your shoes.
    • Block 2
      • No dictators (except Mr. H)—this is a democracy.
      • If you don’t do your homework or like whatever, then the whole group is affected.
      • Be appropriate with your clothing.
  • 2014
    • Block 1
      • Nothing is impossible. The word even says ‘I’m possible’.  [Editor: see *NOTE* below.]
      • Don’t be that person that gets an A- on a test and acts like they failed.
    • Block 2
      • Spoiler alert!!!—don’t spoil the answers for other groups/classes
      • Don’t bring dishonor upon your house


*NOTE*: Once I heard this one, I realized that many of the norms that the students were advocating for were norms that they’d heard from other teachers. I think what makes my accidental prompt so effective, however, is that all these amazing norms are coming out of the mouths of students. When teachers say things, we have a certain status that carries a weight with it. However, when trying to get students to buy into a set of norms for how they would like to work together, it is infinitely more valuable for these words to be spoken by students.

Below are the norms that I curated and created myself. As you can see, they have a different flavor than the students’ norms.

Group Norms

Getting work done

  • Pull your own weight—everyone participates equally.
  • Focus & stay on task.
  • Everybody does the work together, but each person writes it in their own notebook.
  • No one’s done until everyone’s done.
  • Do your HW so that you are prepared to discuss with your group.

Interacting with others

  • Listen before speaking.
  • Everyone takes turns and gets equal time to talk.
  • You must ask for help if you don’t understand.
  • You must help someone if they ask a question.
  • Don’t criticize or put someone down—even if you’re joking.
  • Help other group members without doing their work for them. (Don’t write on a classmate’s paper—you can show them your paper, but let them write for themselves!)
  • Before insisting that you are right, listen—truly listen—to others’ ideas.
  • No talking or interaction with students outside of your group.

 Learning the key math concept

  • Answers aren’t as important as understanding.
  • Question each other.
  • Explain your thinking.
  • There are many correct ways to solve a problem.
  • If you have a question, see if anyone else knows the answer. If not, have the spy call the teacher over.
  • Learning takes time (i.e. I don’t get it… YET!!!)

Being part of a group

  • Have one of the group roles make sure that the group norms are being followed.
  • Fulfill the duties of your role in the group.
  • Everybody cleans up.
  • Keep the desks clear of extraneous stuff to make it easier to see and focus during paper powwows.

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