Skip to main content
Usable Knowledge

Working and Learning Together

How an understanding of group psychology can enhance a school culture
Illustration of brightly colored group with thought bubbles

Groups are a natural part of school — whether it’s a grade, a classroom, a group of friends, or a cohort of teachers. However, educators often enter schools without an understanding of how groups dynamics make or break a learning environment.

“The key point we all know but nobody explicitly talks about is that in any group people look at their peers for the right signals about how to behave — whether that’s a group of teachers looking at each other or a group of kindergarteners looking at each other,” says psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School instructor Adam Silk. Those signals about behavior can make or break a class culture. “Every teacher knows some groups are easier to teach and some groups are harder to teach. But what teachers don’t get trained in is, if you have a difficult group, how do you help them evolve.”

RELATE to One Another

Silk hopes to bring an understanding of group psychology to the field of education through his organization, RELATE. Informed by the work of HGSE faculty members like Monica Higgins and Katherine Boles, RELATE organizes teachers into support groups where they can work through problems they encounter in the classroom and study the ways in which group dynamics help or hinder these issues. Working together with their peers, teachers soon recognize the symmetry between their struggles and those of their students in the classroom.

“It’s experiential learning. You learn how groups work by being in a group,” Silk says.

A qualitative evaluation of the program (currently in three Boston area schools) has found that the process of experiential learning for the participants in the groups:

  • created an enhanced, strongly connected, supportive professional environment in the schools
  • prompted teachers to make changes in their classroom practices
  • offered opportunities for learning that improved professional practice.

Considering the following four aspects of group psychology can help teachers and school leaders improve the way their school community functions:

  • Boundaries: For a group to be successful, there must be a clear understanding of who is in the group, who is not in the group, where the group meets, the length of those meetings, whether or not the door is open, and defined roles for participants.
    • Leader’s Job: Protect the boundaries of the group. Signal that members are a unit, that they all belong, and any issues that arise are problems for the group to solve as a unit.
    • Simple Action: When taking attendance, take a moment to acknowledge who is missing. When that child returns to the classroom, welcome them back. Noting a child’s presence or absence signals belonging.

“It’s experiential learning. You learn how groups work by being in a group.”

  • Agreement: A leader doesn’t impose consensus. Instead, they make a proposal and then makes sure everyone agrees with the decision. However, once a group has come to an agreement or understanding, a leader continues to check in with the group to make sure everything is still working. To do that effectively, the leader ensures that the roles and actions each member of the group takes is clear. They also help the group come to a consensus around success.
    • Leader’s Job: Ask if everyone is on task. If not, ask what isn’t working and if there’s something that can help people do an assignment better or differently. Circle back to generate consensus around expectations, the actions the group members have, and the role of the leader.  
    • Simple Action: Most classrooms have a set of rules or a shared agreement generated at the beginning of the year. Check in periodically to see if these norms are still working for everyone or if members have concerns or frustrations. Include your role as the teacher in this discussion as well — what do your students need you to do so they can succeed?
  • Stages of Development: Groups, like humans, go through different stages of development. In the first stage, members usually wait for the leader to tell them what to do. The second stage is a lot like adolescence — group members test boundaries. By the third stage, a group has matured and will work beautifully together. The final stage is when the group’s time together has come to an end and everyone must say goodbye.
    • Leader’s Job: Be aware that group dynamics can and will change over time — there will be difficult moments and you will need to support them through those. A leader must find ways to guide members to the next stage.
    • Simple Action: After the first week of school, a class will usually move to the second stage. When this happens, think of the group as maturing, rather than as challenging your leadership or misbehaving. Revisit previously established boundaries and agreements to help move the group forward.
  • Scapegoating: According to Silk, this is the poison that can ruin any group dynamic. Generally, a group will find one individual to blame and convey the message that the individual does not belong. Other members of the group start to feel unsafe because they worry whether their sense of belonging will be called into question next.
    • Leader’s Job: Understand why scapegoating is toxic and intervene to interrupt and prevent it.
    • Simple Action: Find ways to include the individual and build connections with the rest of the group without singling the scapegoat out.

Building Trust 

Above all, Silk hopes that in understanding the way people in a school — whether four years old or 50 — work together, educators will be able to nurture supportive learning communities.

“The more you keep the discussion focused at the level of the school and how the group works in the school, the more you build trust where you actually need it,” Silk says. “The groups offer a practical answer to how you create trust and a positive school climate — by allowing people to work together in a setting where you can get to know each other, feel safe, and talk about important things related to [learning].”

Key Takeaways:

  • Having teachers work in groups to solve problems and reflect on that experience can translate into the way they run their classes.
  • Find ways to let all group members know they belong without creating a scapegoat.
  • Work together to solve problems — even if the problems belong to just one individual. People learn behaviors by watching each other and this signals the norm that the group supports every member.   

Usable Knowledge

Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities

Related Articles