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Group Processes in the Classroom

Classroom as Group, A Social-Psychological View, Classroom Climate, Teaching Strategies

Classrooms are social settings; teaching and learning occur through social interaction between teachers and students. As teaching and learning take place, they are complicated processes and are affected by peer-group relationships. The interactions and relationships between teachers and students, and among students, as they work side by side, constitute the group processes of the classroom.

Group processes are especially significant in twenty-first century schools. Group projects and cooperative teamwork are the foundations of effective teaching, creative curriculum, and positive classroom climate. Interpersonal skills, group work, and empathy are important ingredients of modern business, where employees must communicate well for their business to be productive and profitable. Group processes are also significant in modern global communities, where citizens must work together for a safe and secure world. Thus, along with teaching academic curriculum, teachers are expected to help students develop the attitudes, skills, and procedures of democratic community.

Classroom as Group

A group is a collection of interdependent, interacting individuals with reciprocal influence over one another. Interdependent means the participants mutually depend on one another to get work done; the teacher's part is to teach as the students strive to learn. Reciprocal influence refers to mutual effects exchanged and felt by the same people. In classrooms as few as two people can form groups, as long as the paired individuals have reciprocal influence through communication and mental contact. When the teacher engages the whole class in a learning activity common to all, then everyone forms into a single group, or as Herbert A. Thelen wrote, a "miniature society." Although the teacher and students of one class can be a whole group or from time to time many subgroups, groups are not simply people in proximity, such as a host of screaming students at a concert, or categories of individuals with something in common, such as the blondes and redheads of a school.

A group is also defined by its goals and structures. Goals are jointly held outcomes toward which group members work; structures are group roles taken regularly by members as they carry out the work. Groups seek to accomplish task or work goals and social-emotional or morale goals. Classroom groups become more successful as they pursue both task and social-emotional goals.

In most classrooms learning academic subject matter is a valued task goal, while developing a positive climate is a valued social-emotional goal. The class that accomplishes both is stronger than the class that reaches only one. In a parallel way group structures are made up of formal or official roles and informal or unofficial roles. Many classrooms have the formal roles of teacher, aide, student, administrative supporter, and parent helper along with the informal roles of leader, follower, friend, isolate, and rejectee. Classes with clear and understandable formal roles and nurturing and supportive informal roles are stronger than classes with just one or the other.

A Social-Psychological View

Social-psychological research helps one form an understanding of the place of group processes in the classroom. The students of a class form a miniature society with peers, teacher, and aides in which they experience interdependence, interaction, common striving for goals, and structure. Many subgroups in the class affect how the larger classroom society works and how individuals relate to one another. Students interact, formally and informally, with teachers, aides, and one another. The informal interactions usually are not discussed even though they can be very important to everyone. Students work on the curriculum in the physical presence of one another to grow intellectually, behaviorally, and emotionally. Their informal roles of friendship, leadership, prestige, and respect affect how they carry out formal aspects of the student role. The informal relationships among students can be charged with emotion; an interpersonal underworld of peergroup affect is virtually inevitable for all students.

While the class develops, informal relationships with peers increase in power and poignancy; the students' definitions and evaluations of themselves become more vulnerable to peer-group influence. Each student's self-concept is susceptible to change within the classroom society, where informal peer interactions can be either threatening or supportive. In particular, the social motives of affiliation, achievement, and power have to be partly satisfied for each student to feel comfortable and secure. The negative conditions of loneliness and rejection, incompetence and stupidity, powerlessness, and alienation arise when these three motives are frustrated. The more supportive peer relations are in satisfying these motives, the more likely students' learning and behavior will be enhanced. Having students work interdependently toward jointly established goals in supportive, cooperative learning groups can increase their compassion for one another, self-esteem, positive attitudes toward school, and academic learning.

Classroom Climate

Classroom climate refers to the emotional tones associated with students' interactions, their attitudinal reactions to the class, as well as to students' self-concept and their motivational satisfactions and frustrations. Climate is measured by observing physical movements, bodily gestures, seating patterns, and instances of verbal interaction. Do students stand close or far away from the teacher? Are students at ease or tense? How frequently is affective support communicated by smiles, winks, or pats on the back? Do students move quietly with measured steps to their desks, or do they stroll freely and easily, showing the class feels safe? Are students reluctant to ask the teacher questions? How do students relate to one another? Are they quiet, distant, and formal, or do they walk easily and laugh spontaneously? How often do students put a peer down or say something nice to one another? Do students harass or bully other students? How often does fighting erupt? How often does peacemaking occur? Are sessions run primarily by the teacher or do students also take the lead? Do seating patterns shift from time to time, or do they remain the same, regardless of the learning activity? Are students working together cooperatively?

A positive climate exists when the following are present: (1) leadership occurs as power-with rather than power-over; (2) communication is honest, open and transactional; (3) high levels of friendship are present among classmates; (4) expectations are high for the performance of others and oneself; (5) norms support getting academic work done well and for maximizing individuals' strengths; and (6) conflict is dealt with constructively and peacefully. Although each of these six properties of climate can be important by itself, positive climate is an ensemble of all of them. Climate describes how each property is integrated with the others. It summarizes group processes that a teacher develops when interacting with students and how the students themselves relate with one another. Climate is what the behavioral actions are in working toward curriculum goals; it is how curriculum materials are used through human exchange; and it is styles of relating among members of the classroom group. In classrooms with positive climates we find students and teachers collaborating to accomplish common goals along with feelings of positive self-esteem, security, and warmth. We also find students influencing the teacher and their peers, high involvement in academic learning, and strong attraction for one's classmates, curriculum, and school.

Teaching Strategies

Ronald Lippitt and Ralph White, with guidance from Kurt Lewin, observed effects on youth of three leadership styles: autocratic, democratic, and laissez faire. Autocratic leaders made all decisions about group goals and work procedures. Democratic leaders specified group goals, but urged group members to decide among alternative ways of working. Laissez-faire leaders abdicated authority, permitting youth to work as they pleased. Groups with democratic leaders performed best with high quality work output and high morale. Autocratically lead groups had high quality work output, but low morale. Groups with laissez-faire leaders performed worst overall. Classroom research has shown that although autocratic teachers can get students to accomplish high amounts of academic work, they also create conformity, competition, dependency, and resentment. Students of democratic teachers accomplish both a great deal of excellent academic work, and establish positive social climates.

Effective communication is key in understanding differences between autocratic and democratic teachers. Autocratic teachers use one-way communication in persuading students to accept learning goals and procedures as well as rules for classroom behavior; such unilateral direction giving is often an ineffective way of transmitting information. Democratic teachers use two-way communication often to encourage students to participate in making decisions for themselves and in establishing group agreements for classroom procedures. By using transactional communication whereby students and teachers reciprocate in trying to understand one another, democratic teachers help build a climate that is participatory, relaxed, personal, and supportive. Attributes of democratic teachers who are effective transactional communicators are receptiveness to students' ideas, an egalitarian attitude, openness, warmth, respect for students' feelings, sensitivity to outcasts, a sense of humor, and a caring attitude.

Such participatory teachers understand that friendships in the classroom peer group cannot be separated from teaching and learning; friendly feelings are integral to instructional transactions between teachers and students and among students. Students who view themselves as disliked or ignored by their peers often have difficulty in performing up to their academic potential. They experience anxiety and reduced self-esteem, both of which interfere with their academic performance. As outcasts they might seek revenge, searching for ways to be aggressive toward teachers and peers. By watching their teacher interact with the class, students learn who gets left out and who gets encouragement and praise. Teachers can help rejected students obtain peer support by giving them an extra amount of encouragement and praise in front of their peers, and by assigning them to work cooperatively with popular classmates. Teachers with friendly classes see to it that they talk and attend to every student rather than focusing on a few, and often reward students with specific statements for helpful and successful behavior; they seek to control behavioral disturbances with general, group-oriented statements.

Also central to positive climate are the expectations that teacher and student hold for one another. Teachers' expectations for how each student might behave are particularly important because they affect how teachers behave toward that student. Thus, teachers should engage in introspection and reflection to diagnose their expectations, and obtain feedback from colleagues about how they are behaving toward particular students. Teachers should also use diverse information sources to understand what makes their students behave as they do. In particular, teachers should reflect on their expectations and attributions toward blacks and whites, girls and boys, students of different social classes and ethnic groups, and at-risk or students with disabilities. Teachers should deliberately seek new information about student strengths in order to free themselves of stereotypes.

Classroom norms form when most students hold the same expectations and attitudes about appropriate classroom behaviors. Although norms guide students' and the teacher's behavior, they are not the same as rules. Rules are regulations created by administrators or teachers to govern students' behavior; they might or might not become group norms. Student norms frequently are in opposition to teachers' goals, and can become counterproductive to individual student development. Teachers should strive to help students create formal group agreements to transform preferred rules into student norms. In particular, cooperative peer-group norms enhance student self-concept and academic learning more than do norms in support of competition.

Conflict, natural and inevitable in all groups, exists when one activity blocks, interferes, or keeps another activity from occurring. Conflicts arise in classrooms over incompatible procedures, goals, concepts, or interpersonal relationships. The norms of cooperation and competition affect the management of conflict differently. With cooperative norms students believe they will obtain their self-interest when other students also achieve theirs. Teachers should strive, therefore, to build a spirit of teamwork and cooperation in their classes, so that students will feel that it is in their self-interest to cooperate with their peers. When a competitive spirit exists, particularly when students are pitted against each other to obtain scarce rewards, a student succeeds only when others lose. In the competitive classroom, interpersonal conflict will arise frequently between students.

For teachers to build and maintain successful classrooms with high student achievement and positive social climate, they should attend to their leadership style, communication skills, friendliness and warmth, expectations and stereotypes of students, tactics for establishing student group agreements, and their skills in managing conflict.


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