Expert Q&A

As with any new model of teaching and learning, questions about academic teaming are frequent. The following questions were answered by an LSI expert who creates and delivers academic teaming professional development trainings.
1. I love what I have read about Academic Teaming and want to give it a try. How do I get started?

You will want to get started by planning for your teams.  Check out all the resources we have to help you get started.  Academic teams flourish in a safe environment with appropriate resources.  Before your students are ready to tackle rigorous learning targets and tasks as a team, students need direct instruction in why and how teaming leads to success for all.  Talk to your students about how teaming will help them learn and build their 21st century skills.  For younger students, you might talk to them about how teaming helps us build our social skills of listening, talking, sharing ideas, etc. Plan for teaming routines, roles, norms, and expectations. It is best to start with non-academic tasks while students are learning the routines and build up to more rigorous tasks. Teaming is an opportunity for students to show what they know about a certain topic or demonstrate how they use a certain strategy. This ultimately leads to high levels of student ownership and gives students a say in what they are learning.

2. Students aren’t engaging in much conversation during the team task. They all give an answer without discussion or just say, “That’s what I got too.”

Thinking carefully about the question or task you ask students to do is an important piece of successful teaming. If a question only has one correct answer, then it will be difficult for students to have an academic conversation (there isn’t much to talk about once they solved the simple problem). These questions usually come from the lower end of the taxonomy. This is a common issue that can derail a team. If your students are struggling to have a conversation or work together on a question/task, take a look at whether you could tweak what you asked them to do to lead to more meaningful discussions. An easy way to give students more to discuss is to ask them to justify their answer

3. I don’t understand how to do teaming with students who are struggling/non-readers, don’t speak English, or have other special needs?

Team structures and routines give all students access to meaningful learning. Students can use supports and resources during core instruction to help them fill in the gaps of skills and knowledge that they may be missing. They can use both peer and teacher-provided resources to help them process the content. Teaming teaches students how to seek out information instead of having to wait until it is given to them by the teacher. This gives the students the autonomy to say what they need and to ask for help with those specific needs instead of being given the same help everyone else gets whether they need it or not. It is vital that teachers build a safe classroom environment where students help one another through the learning instead of giving each other answers.

4. I’m worried my students won’t learn the content if I don’t teach.

We still want you to teach, but we want to make sure that we all have a common understanding of the different ways direct instruction can happen. In order for students to learn, they need to engage with the learning with others. One way that can happen is through direct instruction, but students can also read a text (article, graph, chart, report, etc.), conduct an experiment, construct a model, or watch a video clip to engage with content. In addition, teachers need to think about how much content students will be able to grasp at a time and what percent of the classroom time is devoted to direct instruction. Building your lessons around the success criteria can help with this. Choosing an appropriate way to teach and delivering your content in small chunks will make it easier for your students to engage in the learning. It will also make it easier for you to know what the students know vs. what they don’t know.

5. How do I know that all kids are learning if they are working in teams so much of the time?

Teaming doesn’t replace individual thinking; you can give kids time to process and/or come up with solutions on their own first, so they have their own thinking to add to the team discussion. While they do this, you can watch, listen, look, and verify individual thought processes to see what knowledge students have picked up. Later, during the team portion of the task, they can further that individual thinking by thinking with others. Brain research tells us that the processing students do while working with others allows students to learn more than they would individually. Students have the opportunity to bring their individual thinking to the team and to learn from each other before they attempt an individual task. This gives the opportunity for teachers to see what students already know about certain topics and to practice the skills they are good at.

6. Students don’t take their end-of-year assessments in teams.

Teaming is about critical thinking. With teaming and analysis level tasks, you are teaching kids to think so they can test vs. teaching them to take a test. It is not possible to direct instruct or “test prep” higher order thinking. Teaming allows students to practice and get better at higher order thinking, so they are comfortable with those thinking processes when working on a test as an individual. Teaming happens before students take a test because it gives students the opportunity to see and learn how others solve problems or apply the same strategies. They get to experience the same content with different perspectives. When it comes time to take an assessment, after students have processed their learning with others, students now have many tools in their toolbox to apply to the assessment instead of one perspective given by the teacher.

7. Can all grade levels team? Kindergartners? High schoolers?

All levels of students can effectively team if teams are set up for success. This is a process over time. Students need to be taught through modeling how to use the teaming resources and why they are important. Each grade level (or maturity level) of students might have specific needs to be considered.  For example, kindergartners might need to be explicitly taught how to take turns and be a good listener, while high school students might need to understand how supporting and coaching their teammates helps them as well as others build knowledge and important 21st century skills employers are desperately seeking. Generally, we’ve found, the higher the grade level, the more students might need help understanding why they’re teaming and why operating as a team is important. All teams need a task that is authentic so students can see a clear connection to the real world and have a chance to apply the knowledge they learned. Teams need to be set up ahead of time and given a clear set of expectations of how to approach the task and have a culture of support within them. In short, yes, anyone, including adults, can successfully team with these conditions in place.

8. How is teaming different than cooperative groups? Grouping has been around forever and most of my colleagues and I disliked it when we did it. One person did all the work, and everyone got a good grade because of it.

First, let’s clear up the grading question. Students should not be graded as a team. All grades should be based on the individual performance of each student which should happen after teaming activities take place. This is a non-negotiable. We want teaming to be a pathway to better student academic performance, not a place for weaker students, whose deficits should be addressed, to hide. As teachers track their student teams, they can gain an understanding of what students know vs. what they don’t know and how they go about seeking information. This information gives the teacher data to know how to respond to what students need and how to build future lessons within the same content so students can be successful independently. Teaming will give the teacher the opportunity to predict independent student performance. See questions 3 & 4.

Secondly, teaming is not the same thing as collaborative groups; it is an extension of it. Research on how the brain learns as well as research on models of instruction have advanced. Our teaming model is based on and incorporates the latest skills and translates them into 21st century teaching practices. One of the main differences between academic teaming and collaborative groups is the level of student autonomy in teams is much higher. In collaborative groups, the teacher owns the learning due to a lack of roles, resources, and expectations. In academic teaming, we believe students should own and drive their own learning since this supports student ownership of their learning by carrying out their roles and responsibilities to ensure the whole team is successful.

9. How long should I let a team struggle before intervening?

When the struggle becomes unproductive and students are demonstrating frustration, then the teacher will need to assess why this level of frustration is occurring. There is no cookie-cutter answer to what to do, but this problem falls into two categories: behavior and content/learning.

  • Behavior: Sometimes students become disengaged, angry, or hurt during teaming conversations. Students need support in learning how to both identify and deal with these types of feelings. We’ve found protocols, anchor charts, or other resources help students learn how to learn together. As teachers, we need to teach students how to use these resources to overcome these issues. In committing to academic teaming, you are committing to helping students learn these important social and emotional skills.
  • Content/Learning: For learning to take place, students must experience productive struggle, so the most important aspect of this is ensuring students are not doing work that is too easy nor too hard. It is important for teachers to understand what productive struggle looks like versus frustration and/or work that is too easy. Having resources available that can support students who are struggling and challenge those who are breezing through the work easily is a key component of academic teaming. In this way, teachers can have a core task that can be tweaked to meet the needs of all learners as they grow in their thinking skills together.
10. Some students don’t want to team. They like to work alone or they have trouble interacting with their peers. Some students are disengaged from school completely and don’t buy into teaming. They just want to sit and do nothing. What do I do in these situations?

For students who resist teaming, it is important to help them understand why you are shifting to teaming and how it can help them. Students may resist for many reasons, so it is important to listen to their point of view and try to understand what their barrier is, so you can help them overcome it. For some students, this will be helping them to know what to do when interacting with a peer (try sentence stems) or how to resolve conflicts (try the conflict resolution protocol). For others, they may be disengaged due to boredom or fear of embarrassment in front of their peers (ensure there’s a compelling task and try working on a supportive classroom culture). Still others may struggle with feelings of strong discomfort when teaming—offering options for moving in and out of a team may be appropriate with these types of students.

Sometimes it’s as simple as modeling the responsibilities of a certain role that can make a student feel comfortable working within a team. Committing to teaming means you are committing to helping students problem solve and work together to find ways for them to be successful with teaming. One non-negotiable: teaming is not a reward. It becomes their way of work in your classroom, not a privilege that students can lose as a consequence for misbehavior or as a time when some students, such as struggling readers or English language learners, work on remedial computer programs while their peers work in teams. As you and your students are learning to get better with teaming, it should not be associated with rewards and punishment or regarded as less important time. Celebrate successes along the way as students do well and adopt a “let’s think about how we might do that differently and try again” attitude when things don’t go as well as you hoped.