RQI Note, April 22, 2020: This post will introduce some basic principles of group leadership. As the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has led to many of us forming new online groups, or adjusting to new online settings for preexisting groups, it is important for group leaders to revisit some of the BASS principles explained in detail below (including “boundaries” and “agreements”) and consider how they may have shifted in this new online environment.
Leaders should also be sensitive to anxieties or insecurities that some group members may be experiencing. For some, navigating an unfamiliar online environment adds to anxiety. Revisiting the goals, norms, modes of communication, and expectations as a group can help create a safe, collaborative virtual environment that allows a group to continue to function productively.
The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) promotes greater equity by creating space for all students’ questions in the classroom. Another strategy for fostering equity, that complements the Right Question Institute’s method, is RELATE’s BASS framework. The framework is a tool for explicit and deliberate work on group leadership skills in order to build more cohesive, supportive classroom communities. Students in harmonious classrooms are comfortable speaking up, while a fractious atmosphere tends to inhibit many people.
Group dynamics play a profound role in the way all people interact with one another. Yet, it can be difficult to spot these dynamics at work. A group of students may one year seem to “gel” quickly, while other classes may struggle to ever really cohere. Similarly, adult groups can vary in their effectiveness. It can be very challenging to name why a group isn’t working to its optimal level, and even more difficult to fix it. Without deliberate practice with group leadership principles, the social forces at work might seem frustratingly invisible.
Teachers and administrators are rarely taught explicitly how to help a group of students become a cohesive unit. A large body of research and experience exists on this subject, however, and can help teachers, administrators, and students. This article, based on the work of the Boston-based RELATE project, describes effective ways to shape a positive group or classroom climate. RELATE condenses group leadership skills into a few key concepts which belong in every teacher’s tool kit.
Sensing the Tone of a Group
The simplest group skill for teachers to develop is sensing the tone of a group. Most people already do this in social settings. When walking into a party, we first sense the overall vibe: Is it relaxed, frenetic, or friendly? It helps the new arrival to notice this, allowing them to plan their next move well. Similarly, teachers who pay attention to the “feel” of a class help themselves and the class. Is the group bored, scared, or excited? Identifying the tone helps teachers know what the class might need next — perhaps a stand-and-stretch, a joke, or deeper exploration of a troubling question.
The rest of the group leader’s toolkit can be summarized by the acronym “BASS:” Boundaries, Agreements, Stages of group development, and eliminating Scapegoating. They are described below.
Boundaries: All groups need healthy, well-maintained boundaries, just as all individuals do. Boundaries create safety for members, a necessity for learning and honest expression. Setting and protecting boundaries is the responsibility of the leader. In groups, the key boundaries pertain to space, time, and membership: that is, where and when do we meet, and who will be here? Leaders who are careless about protecting agreed-upon boundaries damage everyone’s sense of safety. For instance, group leaders who regularly start meetings late, or allow them to run over time, lower the group’s focus and energy.
One kindergarten teacher described how she put her awareness of the importance of membership boundaries to great use in the classroom. She devoted herself, in the first two weeks of the school year, to giving this message to students: “We all belong here.” Several months later a new student with disruptive behavior joined her class. A group of students cornered the new student aside one day after an outburst. She overheard students telling him, “Listen, you belong here.” His behavioral issues, which were driven by his anxiety about being accepted by his peers, largely disappeared over the next few weeks.
The four rules of the first step of the QFT is an example of setting boundaries. The four rules protect the safety and set conditions for equitable participation in the small group discussions.
Agreements: Successful groups of all types develop clarity early on about their goals and how they will be met. This is called the group agreement. Agreements typically mandate effort from everyone, so leaders who impose them without any discussion often cause members to withdraw or rebel.
Creating a cohesive group requires that the agreement be understood and accepted by everyone, and building this consensus can take time.
Classes begin with an advantage in creating agreements: the shared understanding that the purpose of this group is to help students learn. But many lessons may require further discussion to garner students’ full involvement. Such conversations might cover topics like the subject’s relevance, or how material will be learned. When students feel comfortable with these questions, their participation becomes easier and fuller, and the feeling of community in the classroom grows stronger.
The QFT is one very effective way to invite students’ involvement in what the class will be learning; They essentially participate in creating a collective agreement about key questions and next steps.
Stages of Group Development: Each person passes through childhood and adolescence to adulthood. Similarly, all groups follow predictable stages of development. One well-known version of the stages of group development is, “Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning.” That is, healthy groups follow this progression: They come together, then struggle for a while with the leader or each other, then set up norms, then function well, and lastly say goodbye. While minor variations on this progression have been proposed, the similarities among them outnumber the differences.
The crucial point here for teachers is that it helps to lead differently at different stages of group development. For example, all groups start out needing considerable structure and support from their leaders. As groups develop greater maturity and autonomy, they need leaders who can allow members more control. Teachers who strive for the same level of control — whether high or low — throughout the school year can inadvertently interfere with the development of a strong community among their students.
It is significant too that “storming” is a typical part of group development, and in this stage, it can be important for the group leader to remain open, flexible, receptive to questions or push-back, in order to help the group move into the next stage. “Storming” may actually be a good sign that the group is growing and members are striving to take more ownership.
A full explanation of how to lead well in each of the different stages of group development is beyond the scope of this article. Those interested in more details should read Faculty Groups: From Frustration to Collaboration, by Susan A. Wheelan (Corwin Press, 2005).
Scapegoating: Scapegoating is when most members of a group ignore or attack one of the members in an attempt to create cohesion by acting as if all the group’s problems are the fault of that individual. The “cohesion” that scapegoating creates is toxic, however, since the group has now sacrificed one of its own. Once a group starts down this path, every member realizes they could be the next victim, and no one feels safe.
The leader is responsible for preventing scapegoating from becoming a group norm. One way to prevent scapegoating is by consistently stressing that the classroom is one community. Teachers must also recognize scapegoating when it starts, and intervene to cut it off quickly. The most effective way to interrupt it is to help the whole group notice what it has in common with the scapegoat, while also making it clear that this behavior pattern is unacceptable.
Beyond sensing the room and BASS, there are other strategies that build cohesive groups, but this basic toolkit is a good place to start for most classroom situations. Like teaching, leading groups is an art that no one ever masters completely; and as with teaching, there is great joy to be found in building greater skill as time goes on.
About the author: Adam Silk is executive director of RELATE.
RELATE is a program in several Boston schools, providing training in group leadership for teachers. Teachers meet together in groups of 8-12, facilitated by experienced leaders, to discuss challenges they are grappling with at work. Leaders not only facilitate the meetings; they also point out principles of group behavior as they arise in the teacher group and the classroom. Such experiential learning creates deep emotional engagement and growth among learners. To learn more about RELATE or to contact us, please find us at relateforteachers.org.