Small Groups Work
The following draft suggests ways to organize, accomplish goals, and fix the learning process if it goes awry in our working relationships. We are all students. We have a little to a lot of experience working in groups that are digital and in person. This resource is designed to build small groups of people with an interest in doing good.
- Get Started
- Building Inclusion
- Supportive Leadership
- Focus on Direction
- Focus on Roles
- Problems are Solutions
1. Getting Started
Groups work well when they know each other’s names and a bit of background, such as an experience related to a task at hand or a group’s purpose.
Inclusion occurs by considering ideas and ways to proceed. Is it a group based on expertise in a community setting? Can we share a variety of ideas about working on an issue? Extensive and early time on these two questions to help resolve personal and social hesitations about expertise, experience, or basic openness and save countless hours.
Leadership selections on the basics of a project (scheduling, research goals, interviews, and other long-term aspects) help mark phases of the proposed work, shared responsibilities, and assurances of accountability. Conversely, missed steps require recognition of the impact on beginnings, middles, and ends.
Goal clarification is continuous through objective work. Listening to be heard means all forms of ideas are encouraged as divergent thinking or brainstorming.
Allocate responsibility for parts of the project in the context of an overall schedule that is:
- set to individuals and teams with team leader responsibility to
- account for and assemble the parts into a final form
- meetings review/exhibit work complete per session determines
- who did/will do what, in what format, by when (days, weeks, months)
- establishes an estimate of closure time for assembling parts into final form
- the open leadership structure
- one designated leader
- rotating leaders
- assigned roles separately or in teams
- assure opportunities to contribute are encouraged at meetings
- use future perfect tense to begin meetings and plan long term
- “At the end of this session, we will have… ”
- Use concrete elements: i.e., six people to call, five sessions, three interviews with named people, place and time
- Use a scribe (often rotating) to write the script on a board or newsprint.
- decisions are recorded
- responsibility allocated for processes such as:
- a time manager for meetings
- periodic summations, “how are things going?”
- pre-meet to check-in or calls for an assist
- set ground rules with statements and observations
- start meetings on time, state kinds of interruptions allowed
- check to know if everyone is contributing to discussions
- manage discussions, so all participate
- are people listening to each other?
- are different kinds of contributions recognized?
- are all members accomplishing the work expected of them
- anything members can do for those experiencing difficulty?
- are there types of disagreements the group needs to address
- is someone dominating?
- is someone failing to participate?
- are we enjoying the work? If not, why not?
- know that some problems need outside help
2. Building Inclusion
The statement that no one is as smart as all of it requires proof. The “all of us” idea is a demand for a level of inclusion that improves outcomes. Using the spectrum of autism might offer insight.
Seek high-quality outcomes for a group of high schoolers, college students, friends, or co-workers who are as unique as a group can be but who share various threads of experience on the now vast autistic spectrum that seems to encompass us all. The drive for quality binds us as teachers or parents, or just people on the common pathways chosen to seek the discovery of questions and possible answers about social and economic conditions that lead to positive change.
To discover these questions and the possibilities for answers, people find ways to share experiences, resources, and strategies in their use and deployment. This practice of sharing common interests can be basic participation in a support group or as complex as a Claud Shannon style systems analysis of information theory applied to ASD.
The is the heart of it. A forum is offered in the use of a blog such as this one. It has its own history to look forward to as a parent’s exchange. (Two video distractions on digital origins are HERE and HERE.) Think of these as examples of divergent thinking for brainstorming.
Once shared, a common interest gives everyone a chance to contribute in a large and small group context. The interest can be one sentence or a complex effort to start a cooperative. Adam Westbrook has insight into the process. (HERE). If not, the point is “tenacity” is important.
A group’s selected task (or list of them) may seem overwhelming to some, and the project may seem obvious to others. Both views help to break the work into parts that encourage everyone’s contribution or creative modification.
To produce as many ideas as possible in a short time, do not evaluate them. Make sure each is carefully listened to and heard. Do not allow comments at that time. Name them, write them on newsprint (or comment in a blog) to not get forgotten or lost. Take turns by going around the group – hear from everyone, one by one.
The term “brainstorming” describes the flow of ideas in any order (without others’ commenting, disagreeing, or asking many questions). The advantage of brainstorming is that ideas do not become closely associated with the individuals who suggested them. The process encourages creative thinking by recording and, for the time being, accepted. Online comments help ideas flow quickly, and spell checks make it easy. Everyone can add to the list. Say —
- Let’s take a minute or two for each of us to present our views?
- Let us get all our ideas out before evaluating them. We’ll clarify later.
- We will discuss all these ideas after we hear what everyone thinks.
- You don’t have to agree with her, but let her finish.
- Let us spend a few more minutes seeing any possibilities we haven’t thought of, no matter how unlikely they seem.
3. Group Leadership
- organize tasks and are accountable for getting them done
- sustain a positive atmosphere
- encourage contributions
- accomplish tasks and by observing group process
- and helps to focus each aspect of the project task
- be anyone in a group interaction
- observe the way people are participating
- be aware of feelings communicated nonverbally
- listen to and appreciate others
- see disagreements between ideas instead of people
- anticipate information, material, and resource needs
- be responsible for on-time beginnings and endings
- organize practical support: a room, markers, breaks
- take part in the discussion and participate as a member
- step aside to signal participation as an equal
Assess Participation Affects and Performance Effects
- the personal sense of fit
- the quality of listening skills
- the impact of different backgrounds and experience
- the process leading to decisions
- structures that influence the group
- special offerings, knowledge/experience comparisons
- does anyone know anything about it?
- openly shared workloads with analysis
- new and clear points are acknowledged
- hard work is recognized
- disagreements are dealt with directly as they occur
- agreements make sense to all, at least “somewhat.”
- support sense of pride and accomplishment
Focusing on a Direction
After a large number of ideas have been generated and listed (e.g. on the board or newsprint)
- a group creates categories, then examines and prioritizes
- agrees on a process for choosing from among the ideas.
- discuss advantages and disadvantages of plans
- make decisions via straw vote (each group member could have 2 or 3 votes) or vote for first, second, and third choices and alternatives one by one
- list criteria for a successful plan of action
To complete categorizing and evaluating idea say:
- We have about 20 ideas here.
- Can we sort them into general categories?
- Start with positive aspects before expressing concerns when evaluating ideas.
- Could you give us an example of what you mean?
- Who has dealt with this kind of problem before?
- What are the pluses of that approach? The minuses?
- We have two basic choices.
- First, look at the advantages of the first choice, then the disadvantages, and repeat.
- Try ranking ideas in priority order.
Making a decision
Once all views are heard, and points of agreement and disagreement are identified, process agreements that makes sense to everyone. Examples of what to say:
- There seems to be some agreement here. Is there anyone who couldn’t live with solution #2?
- Are there any objections to going that way?
- Still, seem to have worries about this solution?
- Is there anything that could be added or taken away to make it more acceptable?
- We’re doing fine. We’ve agreed on a great deal.
- Let’s stay with this and see if we can work this last issue through.
- It looks as if there are still some major points of disagreement. Can we go back and define what those issues are and work on them rather than forcing a decision now.
Occupations in Groups.
Individuals contribute at different times and for many reasons. For example, it is possible to self-select a role, respond to a request as part of a project, and recognize the need to fill a function when needed. Examples are:
Initiate. Take initiatives: convene a group, suggest a method, procedure. Say –How about if we..What would happen if…?
Seek information. Request facts, or preferences, suggestions, and ideas. Say —Could you say a little more about… Would you say this is a more workable idea?
Give information. Provide facts, data, information from research or experience, Say —ln my experience I have seen.. May I tell you what I found out about?
Question. Step back from the moment and offer specific questions about the task. Say — Are we assuming that? Would the consequence of this be?
Clarify. Interpret an idea, clear up confusion, define terms and ask others to clarify. Link contributions and ideas that seem or unconnected. Say — It seems that you are saying…Doesn’t this relate to what [name] was saying earlier
Summarize. Put contributions into a pattern, but do not add new information. This role is important if a group gets stuck. Appoint a summarizer. This is a powerful and influential role. Say — If we take all these pieces and put them together…Here’s what I think we have agreed upon so far… Here are our areas of disagreement…)
Support. Remember remarks; be encouraging and responsive to others. Create belonging, and handle stresses and strains. Note gestures, smiles, frowns, eye contact as information without words. Silence can be supportive for people but not for too long. Say — I understand what you are getting at…As [name] was saying…)
Observe. Describe the group dynamic and seek comments. Asking if it can be an effective way to identify and define problems. Say — We seem to be stuck…Maybe we are done. For now, we are all worn out…As I see it, what happened just a minute ago. Do you agree?
Mediate. Recognize disagreements and figuring out what is behind them. Accommodate different values, views, and approaches. Say — I think the two of you are coming at this from completely different points of view…Wait a minute. This is how [name/ sees the problem. Can you see why she may see it differently?
Reconcile. Unify views among members to reduce tension. Say — The goal of these two strategies is the same, only the means differ… Is there anything that these positions have in common? Agree to disagree for now.
Compromise. Yield to a position or opinion to move them forward. Say — Everyone else seems to agree on this, so I’ll go along with… I think if we agree on this, we could reach a decision.
Making Personal Comments. Statements about personal experiences life can strengthen a group’s willingness to develop common interests with self-interest.
Humor. Laughter is effective in relieving tension or dealing with dominant participants during stressful situations. In addition, it offers a welcome break from concentration.
A variety of positive roles such as these aid in an energetic, productive enterprise. Open reflection on their importance reduces the misreading of motives and actions of people in a group.
Initiating ideas do not take power from the leader, and questions do not defy authority or slow group progress no more than personal anecdotes belittle serious discussion. Roles encourage positive contributions and a sense of achievement. Roles are skills of communication and the general atmosphere of cooperation and goodwill.
Problems are Solutions
The Flounder. The experience of false starts and circular discussions and decisions that may be postponed are trial and error experiments. Say —
- Here’s my understanding of what we are trying to accomplish. Do we agree?
- What would help us move forward: data? Resources?
- Let’s take a few minutes to hear everyone’s suggestions about how this process might work better and what we should do next.
The Dominate and Reluctant. This could be talking too often, asserting superiority, telling lengthy stories, not letting others finish or rarely speaking, obvious difficulty in getting into the conversation, and non-verbal expressions of separation Say —
- How would we state the general problem? Could we leave out the details for a moment? Could we structure this part of the discussion by taking turns and hearing what everyone has to say?
- Let’s check-in with each other about how the process is working: Is everyone contributing to discussions? Can discussions be managed differently so we can all participate? Are we all listening to each other?
Digressions and Tangents – Long, interesting stories can slow the sense of progress. One thing leads to another agenda. Time estimates on items or summaries of the discussion before the digression help reduce the talking point topic. Say —
- Can we go back to where we were a few minutes ago and see what we were trying to do?
- Is there something about the topic itself that makes it difficult to stick to?
Just Stuck. Take a break or a change in focus. Ask for five minutes to talk about clouds or clowns. A solution often emerges when people get back to the issue. Say —
- What’s preventing us from defining this problem?
- Let’s take a few minutes off and talk about something completely different to clear our minds.
- I understand that some of you doubt whether anything new will happen, but can we give it a try for the next fifteen minutes?
Hastiness. The action-oriented may reach a decision quickly and pressure the group to move before others are ready. Say —
- Are we all ready to decide on this?
- What needs to be done before we can move ahead?
- Let’s go around and see where everyone stands on this.
Disputes. Conflict (having nothing to do with the subject of the group) in a group impedes work. To encouraging laying the issue aside or resolving it. Say:
- If we continue too long on this, we won’t be able to get our work done. Can we agree on a time limit and then go on?
- You are saying you would like this group to resolve this.. or, if this is related to the work here, how?
Ridicule. When someone consistently ignores or ridicules what others say, criticizing their experience or knowledge, good-natured humor or a private conversation outside the group can be useful.
This post is an unabashed rewrite of work by Ellen Sarkisian, Derek Bok Center, and many others who have discovered their work via their Harvard online post and many other locations dealing with interpersonal relations. Thank you all!
The Major References are:
Thanks to Iain Aitken and Richard Cannon (Harvard School of Public Health) and Lee Warren (Derek Bok Center) for suggesting the following training materials, parts of which are adapted and quoted:
- Heller, Hunt and Cunningham. Advanced Facilitator. Brookline MA, 1992
- Interaction Associates, Collaborative Problem Solving. Cambridge MA, 1987.
- J. Sketchley, A. Mejia, I. Aitken et al., Work Improvement in Health Services. Geneva: World Health Organization, 1986
Other selected resources
Christensen, C. Roland, David A Garvin, and Ann Sweet. Education for Judgement: the Artistry of Discussion Leadership.Harvard Business School Press, 1991: chapters 8-10.
Fisher, Roger and William Ury. Getting To Yes. Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
Harlan, Anne, and John J. Gabarro. “Notes on Process Observation” in C. Roland Christensen. Teaching and the Case Method. Harvard Business School Press, 1987: 205-210.
Kasulis, Thomas P., “Questioning.” in Margaret Morgonroth Gullette, The Art and Craft of Teaching. Harvard University Press, 1984: 38-48.
Kraft, Robert G. “Group Inquiry Turns Passive Students Active”. College Teaching, 33(4), 149-154, Winter 1985.
Light, Richard. “A Promising Direction for Future Work: the Value of Small Study Groups to Enhance Students’ Learning.” The Harvard Assessment Seminars. Harvard University Graduate School of Education and Kennedy School of Government, 1990: 70-79.
McKeachie, Wilbert, Paul R. Pintrick, Yi-Guang Lin, and David A.F. Smith. Teaching & Learning in the College Classroom: A Review of the Research Literature. National Center for Research to Improve Post-Secondary Teaching and Learning, 1986: 103-109.
Olmstead, Joseph A. Small Group Instruction: Theory and Practice. Alexandria, Virginia: Human Resources Research Organization, 1974.
Sampson, Edward E. and Marthas, Marya. Group Process for the Health Professions, second edition. Wiley, 1981.
Sarkisian, Ellen. “Leading a Discussion: Providing Direction and Continuity.” In Teaching American Students: A Guide for International Faculty and Teaching Fellows. Danforth Center for Teaching and Leaming, 1990: 31-35.
Thinking Together Collaborative Learning in Science (Videorecording). Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, 1992.
Wallis, Barbara, and Kenneth Mitchell. “The teaching of group process skills as a basis for problem-based learning in small task-oriented groups.” In Boud, David, ed., Problem-Based Learning in Education for the Professions. Sydney: HERDSA, 1985: 171-176.