Teaching & Learning

 



Using Small - Group Development to Facilitate Cooperative Learning Base Groups

Nancy E. Stetson

Cooperative learning base groups are long-term groups with stable membership that usually stay together for at least a term. Base groups are appropriate when you have large numbers of students in your classes and the subject matter is complex.

When you facilitate base groups, it will help you to understand small-group development. Regardless of size or type, small groups typically go through predictable stages over time. Small-group development experts such as Kent Curtis, M. A. C. Jensen, R. B. Lacoursiere, George Manning, Steve McMillen, and B. W. Tuckman have named and described these stages. According to these experts, small groups move through four developmental stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing. Obviously, it is in the best interest of base groups to move through the first three stages as quickly as possible in order to develop high performance teams. If you, as facilitator, understand the stages of small-group development, you likely will be better able to facilitate base groups moving more quickly toward the fourth, high-performing stage.

Stage I, Forming: According to the experts, when groups first come together and form, they need to deal with the issue of trust. New groups are unclear on their purpose and members don't know what to expect. They are facing a new social situation, with some discomfort and apprehension. Consequently, they likely will be cautious. They'll be trying to figure out what is going to happen, who's who in the group, where they fit in, and how they will be treated by other group members. They'll also be trying to figure out what is OK behavior, what is the nature of their group's tasks, and how they will deal with each other to accomplish the tasks. Interactions likely will be light and superficial and mostly directed toward you, the formal leader. At this stage, groups will not have developed any skill and knowledge as teams. When you first form your base groups you can expect them to be cautious, excited, anxious, and to perform at a low level. You also can expect individual members to be anxious, searching for structure, silent, and cautious with you and group members.

Stage II, Storming:  Once the base groups have formed, they usually move into a period of storming, when they need to deal with the issue of conflict. In this stage, individual members will react to what has to be done, question your authority, and feel increasingly comfortable being themselves. The groups likely will exhibit conflict and resistance to the task and structure, even as they increase their productivity through increased skills and knowledge. Members may express their concerns and frustrations more openly, and feel freer to exchange ideas. At this stage, they are learning to deal with differences in order to work together to meet their goals. Typically, members will exhibit power struggles for influence. Groups that don't get through the storming stage successfully will exhibit divisiveness and low creativity. After your base groups have formed you can expect them to exhibit conflict over the task and the structure. On some occasions you may have individual members who: confront you, the cooperative learning facilitator; polarize among the team members; test group tolerance; and behave in a fight or flight manner.

Stage III, Norming:  This is the stage in which explicit or implicit norms of behavior are developed that are considered essential for the groups to accomplish their task. Order forms, as does group cohesiveness. Members begin to identify with their groups and develop acceptable ways to complete assignments, resolve differences, make decisions, and solve problems. They enjoy meetings and exchange information among themselves freely. Group (or
team) productivity increases as skills and knowledge continue to develop. After your base groups have successfully stormed, you can expect them to reach agreement on roles and tasks, and norms of behavior, including team member and leadership behavior; and to increase their cohesiveness, morale, and productivity. You also can expect individual members to shift from power struggles to affiliation; from confusion to clarity; from personal advantage to group success; and from detachment to involvement.

Stage IV, Performing: The fourth stage, the payoff stage, is performing. If your base groups have successfully moved through issues of membership, purpose, structure, and roles, they will now be able to focus their energies on group performance: completing tasks and solving problems together. They will take initiative and achieve results. As they achieve progress, morale will go up and they will have positive feelings about each other and their accomplishments as a team. Base groups will now be teams that business and industry call "self-directed work teams." They will no longer be dependent upon you for direction and support; instead, members can take on leadership roles as necessary. You can expect your performing base groups to exhibit good communication and teamwork, individual commitment, high morale and group pride, and high team performance. You can also expect base groups to use a wide range of task and process behaviors: monitor and take pride in group accomplishments; focus on goals as well as interpersonal needs; and maintain the values and norms of the group. Individual members will exhibit interpersonal trust and mutual respect, actively resolve conflict, actively participate, and be personally committed to the success of the group.

Your Role as Small-Group Development Facilitator. As cooperative learning facilitator, you can help base groups move through the first three stages of small-group development as quickly as possible so they can reach the high performance stage. According to Manning et al. your small-group development facilitator role in each of the four stages is slightly different.

In the forming stage, you can reduce uncertainty by: (1) explaining the purpose of the groups and their goals, (2) providing time for questions,
(3) allowing time for members to get to know each other, and (4) modeling expected behaviors.

In the storming stage, you can reduce conflict by: (1) hearing all points of view; (2) acknowledging conflict as an opportunity for improvement; (3) adhering to core values, such as truth, trust, and respect; and (4) maintaining democratic and humanistic ideals.

In the norming stage, you can encourage norm development by: (1) modeling listening skills, (2) fostering an atmosphere of trust, (3) teaching and facilitating consensus, and (4) providing team-centered learning.

In the performing stage, you can help groups succeed by: (1) being prepared for temporary setbacks, (2) focusing on task accomplishments and interpersonal support, (3) providing feedback on the work of the groups, and
(4) promoting and representing the groups.

Manning et al. believe it is helpful to view each of the stages in the life of groups from two points of view. "The first is interpersonal relationships. The group moves through predictable stages of testing and dependency (forming), tension and conflict (storming), building cohesion (norming), and finally, establishing functional role relationships (performing)."

"At the same time, group is struggling with accomplishing tasks. The initial stage focuses on task definition and the exchange of information (forming). This is followed by discussion and conflict over the task (storming). Next comes a period of sharing interpretations and perspectives (norming). Finally, a stage of effective group performance is reached (performing)."

If you and your base groups have done your jobs exceedingly well, you will have groups that exhibit the "dazzling dozen" characteristics of effective teams described by Manning, et al.:

1. Clear mission
2. Informal atmosphere
3. Lots of discussion
4. Active listening
5. Trust and openness
6. Disagreement is OK
7. Criticism is issue oriented, never personal 8. Consensus is the norm 9. Effective leadership 10. Clarity of assignments 11. Shared values and norms of behavior 12. Commitment

Stage V, Adjourning. If you're an experienced cooperative learning base-group facilitator, you undoubtedly know the fifth stage in small-group development, one most of the experts don't address: adjourning. As your base groups near the end of the term, they typically will begin to think about how they will feel when the groups are no longer groups. They usually will experience some sadness or regret at the idea of separation.

In the adjourning stage, you can encourage closure by: (1) acknowledging and honoring the feelings about relationships that have developed; and
(2) allowing farewell rituals. If you have super high-performing groups, they may not even need your encouragement. They may perform the task of closure-their final task together-all by themselves.
 

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