Classroom Dynamics: Practical tips on creating a successful group

characteristicsThe IH Andalucia conference was held last Saturday in Seville. I gave a talk on this topic to a dynamic group of teachers. Some of the things that I researched were pretty useful so here’s a post on the subject.

I first started to think about classroom dynamics earlier this year when I got my new classes. There were three where I recognised I needed to make a special effort to get them communicating and working together: a class of adults who were terribly “cold” and shy with each other, a class of teenagers who were half asleep, and a class of very energetic 10 year olds.

My reading led me to understand that there is “a positive relationship between group cohesiveness and performance.”*

So, how can we teachers encourage group cohesiveness? Every class group is different, and teachers can’t perform magic, but there are certain things we can do which make a difference.

1) BEGINNINGS
  • Icebreakers: Vital! Use them at the beginning of a course, and not only in the first lesson – they should be part of the first 5 -10 lessons of a course. If a new student joins the class at any stage, do another icebreaker activity to reflect the fact that the class dynamics have changed. Highly recommended: joining in the activity yourself.  You are part of the class!
  • Learn names! Find a way to learn all your students’ names as soon as you can. One suggestion – take a picture of the class. You could give a copy to every student. to help them remember names as well.
  • Warmers: Start every lesson with a warmer. The students need time to transition from what they were doing before the class, to get into English mode, and to slot back into the class group. ¨Ice has a habit of reforming unless constantly moved about.”† I’ve been collecting warmers.
2)COMMON GOALS AND NORMS

A class that gets on like a house on fire isn’t necessarily a dream class: without defined goals, a cohesive group can actually be a hindrance to successful learning.

GOALS

Give your students regular opportunities to think about their individual strengths and weaknesses and then – and this is important – get them to discuss their goals together as a class to come up with some common goals. Some ideas:

  • Use a simple SWOT list (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities (what more can I do) and threats (what´s stopping me) [I got this idea from the amazing Elspeth Pollock at ELI]
  • A similar 4-part needs analysis: What do I find useful, What do I want to do more of in class, What more can I do to improve, What can my teacher do to help me improve. (This previously featured here.) It looks like this:needs analysis

NORMS

  • Just as important as common goals are common norms. This is where your class contracts come in. Get the students (adults included) to discuss the norms together and agree on them. They should include some things for the teacher to keep to as well, for example, students who want to pass their FCE exam could agree to always hand in their writing on time, and teachers could agree to mark it within a week. Make these norms explicit and write a contract. Refer to it and renegotiate it when necessary.
  • N.B. It´s important that the teacher observes the norms, otherwise the students won´t either.
3) MAINTAINING A FRIENDLY, SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENT
  • Empathy activities, where the students answer the questions as if they are their partner. This could be done with any personal chat questions in a text book or like this: Ghostwriter.
  • Active listening activities, eg. One Voice, Me Too!
  • Fake-it-till-you-make-it activities (it actually works!), eg. Say Something Nice
  • Drama activities, eg. Bucket
  • Change seating/partners
4) SENSE OF GROUP
Encourage a sense of belonging by working in activities that tie the whole group together and build a class legend.
  • Class photo
  • Group name. My FCE teens just named themselves The Crazy Potatoes, and my 6-year-olds are now The Seven Tigers (instead of FCE 1845  MJ and Prep 2 1615 XV respectively. Bit more catchy, eh?)
  • Class poem
  • Group photo with watermelon‡. Take the fancy dress box to class, and ask the Students to choose one item or prop. They imagine who they are with this thing and what they are doing.  Then ask them to assemble for a group portrait. Give the person in the middle the watermelon, or whatever object you’ve got. Take a picture! In pairs, the students can look at the picture and write the story behind it. I haven’t tried this with students yet,  but the teachers loved it.
  • Ownership of the class. Let the students take as much responsibility for the group as possible, for example, taking the register, collecting homework, maintaining the class website.
5) ENDINGS

Give students opportunities to reflect on what they have learnt and experienced in the lesson/term/year. Here are some ideas:

  • Remember when…?‡ At the end of the course, ask the students to think back and finish this sentence. They can then go on to describe the event in more detail or write more sentences. The results can be shared by pinning up around the room, or sharing them verbally in groups.
  • Thank you presents.‡  Each student thinks of a present they would like to give another student and why. For example, “I would like to give Angel a joke book because he always laughs at my jokes and needs to learn some better ones.” They can think of one for every student and then share them with the class, either individually or as a class in a “presentation ceremony.”
  • Talking Wall* Give students some post-it notes. They could be different colours for different categories, eg. Things I enjoyed about the course, What I’m going to do next, etc. Students write one thing on each post-it and then stick them on the wall. They can then wander around reading the various comments and talking about them.

I hope you find this useful! I’d love to know if you have any comments or ideas on the subject. Thanks!

*Group Dynamics In The Language Classroom by Zoltan Dornyei and Tim Murphey, 2003:65

Group Dynamics and Foreign Language Teaching by Zoltan Dornyei and Angi Malderez. page 69

Classroom Dynamics by Jill Hadfield

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11 comments

  1. Fita Arneza · · Reply

    Its such a great idea.. thanks a lot..it is really useful for better classroom action

    1. You´re totally welcome! It was really interesting to look into and those books are great. Jill Hadfield´s one in particular has a lot of practical activities.

  2. Alexandra · · Reply

    Great insights. Thanks!

    1. You’re welcome!

  3. Agreat post, very much hands-on! Thanks a lot! I especially like “talking wal”and remember when”

  4. Emma, your post is highly useful and thought-provoking as usual. Thanks a lot for your contribution into my development! I’ll definitely try it out.

  5. Emma, it’s a very useful and thought-provoking post as usual. Thanks for your contribution into my professional development. I’ll definitely try these ideas in my classroom.

  6. annfore · · Reply

    Hi Emma,
    Just to let you know that we’ve shortlisted this blog post for this month’s TeachingEnglish blog award and I’ll be making a post about it on today’s TeachingEnglish Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil, if you’d like to check there for likes and comments.
    Best,
    Ann

    1. Thank you, Ann!

  7. Simon A · · Reply

    Hi Emma
    This is brilliant stuff 🙂 I’m just about to go to Switzerland and start a new summer course class and these ideas look great! Have a great summer,
    Simon (IH Cordoba)

    1. Thanks, Simon! Enjoy Switzerland! Hopefully see you next year!

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