In my last post, I made the case for why students (and all of us) need to learn how to hold each other accountable. It’s essential for healthy student collaboration in the classroom, and a skill that is needed to be successful throughout life.
One of the best tools for students to use to hold each other accountable and have a healthy collaborative culture is the group contract.
The Group Contract
At the beginning of any collaborative project, before any work takes place, students should fill out a group contract. A group contract is a shared document that the group members write together and sign. It’s essentially a mutual agreement made by all group members to set the norms for collaboration throughout the project. This is a living document that can be referred to and used as a tool whenever necessary to help students hold each other accountable.
Here’s how students can fill out the group contract:
Strengths and Weaknesses
The creation of a group contract starts with a discussion among group members about each other’s strengths and weaknesses concerning whatever project or task they are working on. If students are doing some type of art project, it’s beneficial for everyone to know if someone loves making art. If there is a video component, this is an opportunity for a student with video skills to let everyone else know. If the project involves public speaking and a student is deathly afraid of public speaking, they would share this with their group members during this part of the process.
This does not mean if someone is strong in a certain area they will be assigned a certain task, or that a kid afraid of public speaking won’t have to present. The point of this process is for students to get acquainted with each other so they have extra knowledge to strengthen collaboration later on. Classroom relationships tend to be surface level, and what students know about each other is based on certain, narrow information. When students are given a formal, directed time to talk with each other about personal strengths and room for growth, relationships go deeper. And I cannot say this enough: the heart of strong collaboration is found in relationships.
Next, students discuss what they expect from each other throughout the group project. A teacher can model or lead this discussion the first time, talking about what kind of agreements should be included in the contract. It might include items like:
I will complete any task assigned to me by the group.
If I am sick or absent for some reason, I will check-in with the group.
I will not use my headphones unless I am working on an individual task.
I will meet all deadlines that the group sets.
I will be open to constructive criticism by other group members.
It might be helpful to ask students, “What kind of things have bothered you before during group projects?” or “If you are on a team, what do you value most from your teammates?”
After gathering responses, let students know that the group contract is designed to help prevent these issues. Once students have a handle on how to create team agreements, allow them to discuss about what should be included.
Consequences for Violating Team Agreements
Then students come up with the consequences for not meeting those expectations with each other. It’s helpful to have a warning system where each student is allotted a certain number of warnings or strikes when they violate an agreement, before more serious action is taken. When creating the contract, students should decide how many warnings each group member should get. And if someone is off-task or violates the contract, group members are responsible for giving those warnings to each other.
For instance, if a student was absent from school and did not check-in with their group members, leaving them unable to work that day, the group should collectively give that student a warning. This isn’t an argument or even a confrontation, but a clear statement recognizing someone did not uphold the group contract. The student who was absent might not have been aware they affected the group, but this warning now makes sure they are. It helps prevent resentment and all of the consequences of not communicating issues. When one student receives a warning from their group, it is a wake up call to collaborate better and work harder. This usually results in no further issues.
However, sometimes a student keeps violating the team agreements and uses up all of their warnings. This results in the more serious action, which is up for the teacher to decide. In my classes, it’s usually a sit-down meeting with me, the teacher. Meeting with a teacher is the result of multiple warnings and can never be used as a first option. Students need to learn how to manage issues with each other, and cannot rely on authority to resolve them.
This is true in the workplace as well. Going to a manager with every grievance one has for someone else is not efficient. It’s a waste of the manager’s time, and probably a waste of the employee’s.
At this meeting, I allow both sides to share their grievances and defense, letting group members air out their problems. I spend this time mainly listening, and quite often the conversation goes like this:
“He hasn’t done any work.”
“That’s because no one told me what to do!”
“We talked about what to do as a group and you were on your phone!”
“That’s because you wouldn’t listen to my ideas anyway!”
Again, the teacher should mainly listen during this part, as sometimes groups just need the space to vent. It’s easy to want to jump in and try to solve the problem, but conflict resolution is so much more successful when students lead the way. Teachers should be conflict mediators, making sure language and tone does not become disrespectful, and the conversation is moving in a positive direction.
To assist in this, it’s extremely helpful to have an active listening protocol to guide the discussion. Here’s a great example adapted from Emily White and Nancy Mohr:
Allow one side to speak for a full two minutes
During the conversation, maintain eye contact with each other while speaking, but do not say anything.
It is important not to pass judgement on the person speaking, even by reassuring or reaffirming them. You should even avoid nodding your head, making agreeable sounds like, “uh huh,” or even, “I get that. This is their time to speak and share their side of the story.
When they finish, wait ten seconds and then rephrase what they said using the sentence starter, “What I heard you say is…”
Wait for confirmation or explanation.
Ask one follow up question.
Having a strict protocol for students to follow ensures everyone is heard and no one leaves the conversation feeling like they were disrespected. Once all the grievances have been laid bare, I try to find a way to get the group working together again. I’ll say something like, “It sounds like you guys are frustrated because he isn’t working, and he is frustrated because no one is listening to his ideas. What do you think needs to happen to get this group back on track?”
Students then come up with a plan, often agreeing to a fresh start, and the group can get back to work. Most of the time, and I mean the vast majority of time, this conflict remediation is successful. Most students just need to be made aware that their actions are affecting everyone else, and they will do everything they can to remedy that. Remember, we desire peace, and sometimes we have to confront the problem in order to achieve it. Some of the best collaboration I have ever witnessed came after one of these heart-to-heart conversations. Suddenly, everyone feels heard and valued, and as a result, works harder and with more passion.
When a Student Refuses to Collaborate
Now, there are times where the student who has failed to meet their group’s expectations does not agree to collaborate and change their actions. In these instances, they can be fired from the group. Being fired means that individual is removed from the group and must complete the entire project on their own. They cannot use any of the resources gathered from the group that they were in, but still have the same deadline and expectations as everyone else. And of course, they will be assessed to the same standard as everyone. And when assessed for collaboration (which we’ll talk about in chapter 7), this student will receive a zero, because they are demonstrating their inability to collaborate.
Also, I call their mom.
Pretty harsh, isn’t it?
It should be noted, this is not a punishment, but a natural consequence for negative actions. It’s important to note that these are similar actions one would see in the workforce if they were not collaborating and producing well (except maybe for calling one’s mom- not sure that technique happens as much in the career world).
I make my students very aware of the firing process at the beginning of the school year when we talk about accountability. I want everyone to understand that the group contract should be taken seriously, and that there are consequences for not abiding by it. The reality is, students do not want to be fired from their group, and they do not want to have to complete an entire project on their own. Thus they learn how to collaborate and hold each other accountable.
This is why, in my entire career, I’ve maybe seen five students fired from their groups. The group contract is not an excuse for students to fire each other, but actually a tool to prevent it. They should access it throughout a group project, returning to their agreements and reminding each other of them when they are violated.
The contract is not just a bit of minutia at the beginning of a project. It is the foundation for accountability to ensure that project’s success. This is why I have my students sign their names to it after its completion. They are signing a covenant to working together and achieving the best possible outcomes.
Accountability can become apart of class culture, and when it does, the need for it becomes less and less. As students learn the natural consequence of not contributing to a group’s effort, they adjust and work better in their teams. Of course it takes effort and some difficult experiences to build this culture, but the benefit makes it worth it.
Students are no longer left in frustration as one group member plays video games while everyone else works. They now know how to respectfully ask them to stop because they are violating the agreed-upon norms set at the beginning of the project.
This makes collaboration possible. And the more students do it, the better they will become at it. You will see the advantages right before your eyes in your classroom, but more importantly, students will see it the rest of their lives. From group projects in college, to working in an increasingly diverse and collaborative workplace, students will know how to have those conversations to ensure everyone is working to their full potential.