Managing student partners is critical in today's classroom. At any grade level, learners are likely to spend as much time working with partners as they are working alone.
For example, partners are a key element in the way I teach spelling.
This can be a great benefit for building inclusion in the classroom if it is managed properly. If not managed, it can:
- Reinforce cliques
- Undermine your classroom team-building activities
- Leave some kids taken advantage of…
- … while others go unchallenged
So what's the key?
“We are here to learn, friends are a side benefit.”
This is a quote of mine. I am adamant that my kids learn to work with any other member of the class at any time on any subject.
Yes, I believe in a student-centered classroom, but that doesn't mean the students get to run the classroom! As noted many times on this site: the teacher runs the classroom in the way that best benefits the children.
When it comes to managing student partners, it is critical to reinforce a willingness to collaborate with anyone – after all, that's the way they will be expected to work in their future jobs.
The situations where it is acceptable for kids to pick their own partners are rare; the only one that comes to mind is perhaps a 15-minute buddy reading session.
There are also situations where kids are undertaking a brief conference to firm up answers and informal partnering is fine:
- Turn to your table partners (if seated in groups.)
- Turn to the person across from you.
Don't overdo this as it can dilute your community-building efforts. Also, ensure that your classroom seating arrangement results in good partner pairings before you encourage it.
So how best to pick partners? First, as always, set simple, clear expectations:
“I don't expect anyone to be anyone else's best friend. I just expect you to be kind and respectful.”
Our mantra (and I make them repeat this):
“We are willing to work with ANYONE.”
Next, make it random. Picking names from a hat is the classic method, but you can also find random name generator apps.
The biggest drawback that we all know about working with a partner is that we do all the work while the other guy coasts. (We are never “the other” guy, are we?) A teacher must be vigilant to ensure that partnerships are equal.
Circulate to ask questions; it will become readily apparent who is doing the work and who is not. If the kids expect that the teacher will be checking up on them, they'll put out the effort needed to stay on task.
Video tips: Managing student partners
Intentional student partner setups
There will be cases where one student “gets it” and the other doesn't, leading to one kid instructing the other. This is fine since teaching is a great way to reinforce mastery, and kids sometimes learn best when they hear the lesson from a different source.
Compliment the “teacher” to let them know you appreciate their patience and understanding. Effective classroom incentives are built on such small, considerate gestures.
After you get to know the strengths of your kids in different curriculum areas, you can use this knowledge to assign student partners that will help bring the entire class along faster. It's often an effective technique to use with gifted students.
But don't overdo this!
Expecting a strong student to always be pulling a weaker student along will frustrate them – you are the only one in the room getting paid to shore up the skills of weaker students!
Student partners, if managed thoughtfully, can really accelerate learning. Partnering is the opposite of the old school approach of “sit in your desk, stay quiet, and do your work.”
I think the benefits of this approach for classroom team-building activities can be tremendous.
It mixes things up during the day, combating boredom and reinforcing learning from different approaches. Combined with the fact that it also reinforces inclusion in the classroom community, partnering is a winner.