What happens when you give eight bathroom plungers to a group of teenagers in a classroom? You may ask why a teacher would give plungers to teenagers in the first place. Good question.
In an attempt to facilitate teamwork a few years ago, I divided my classroom into eight groups. Each group chose a soccer team to represent them. The flags of each soccer team were taped to eight wooden plunger handles. The plungers were placed on the tables with team flags raised proudly in the air as symbolic banners of common purpose.
Before my team activity could begin, the students instinctively began to stick the plungers on the walls, doors and tables around the room. Good times.
The shared team moment with plungers became a spontaneous experiment on the physics of suction. Besides being super fun, the plungers and flags attached to them did create a strong sense of team among my students.
Each soccer team collaborated to solve problems more efficiently than other teams in class. The competition required students to collaborate to meet challenges they were presented with.
Creating teams is important if we want to encourage student cooperation and positive emotions toward our content. The research of Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass show that, “People teamed with a computer feel more similar to the computer than people who are not teamed. They think better of the computer, cooperate and agree more with the computer. They believed the computer was more relevant, helpful and insightful and more friendly”.
So, how do we create a sense of team with our online students? How do we encourage students to consider themselves to be teammates with our course? Researchers generally agree that two factors are key to creating team dynamics: group identity and group interdependence.
To create team identity, each group must have a marker like a name, color, mascot or uniform that distinguishes them from all other groups. Group identity is easy to create and affects the emotional experience of taking an online course, but does not affect student behavior like a sense of group interdependence.
For Reeves and Nass, “Interdependence means that the behavior of each team member can affect all of the other members”. The authors’ experiments show that students who feel dependent on a computer for correct answers feel good about their experience and also change their behavior during the interaction.
Students take the ideas presented by a computer more seriously and even change their answers to match those given by the computer. Reeves and Nass say, “A team is simple to create – a name will do – but it’s even more powerful when people are asked to rely on the computer for their own success.”
They describe their methodology, “The teams we created in our experiment comprised of a person and a computer. Participants were told they were on the “Blue Team.” To ensure that participants felt dependent on the computer, we told them we would grade their performance, and the final evaluation would depend on both their work and the work of the computer.”
Team interdependence implicitly presumes equality of each group member. If the working of our course communicates that it is superior or inferior to the student, the student will have a hard time feeling part of a two-person team with our content.
However, if we create an environment of mutual need and admiration with our students, they will feel connected to our course and will work together with us to learn. They will more likely consider the merits of our content and will more likely agree with the central premises of our instruction.
Creating equality with our students is realized through our choice of words. Reeves and Nass explain that we define our relationships with words. They suggest that, “Merely saying that tasks are team efforts will do. A team label could substitute for other labels that define asymmetry, such as ‘wizard’ and ‘tool’.
The computer could also tell people that it needs help to complete its tasks. This is quite simple, and is always true, at least to some degree. The fanciest of computers, lacking cooperation from the humans who use them, will never be able to give people exactly what they want. There are too many questions, too many conditions that require sorting.
People and machines really do depend on each other […] People are not foolish because they like to work on teams; people are human because they like to work on teams.
If it’s a good idea to add ‘please’ to ‘wait for this file to be copied’, then why shouldn’t the computer also say, ‘This task can best be accomplished if we work as a team”.