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Storm, norm, collaborate!

Teachers and school leaders can benefit from a well-known model of group process psychology – Form, Storm, Norm, Perform –  to design their own role in the development of a collaborative group culture. Although the storming phase may feel uncomfortable for some, it is a vital developmental stage of an effective group. In a truly collaborative culture, each newly formed group would be aware of their own development and actively contribute to the productivity of each stage.

In 1965 educational psychologist Bruce Tuckman analysed 50 published studies of group processes and  came up with a description of how the individuals in a newly-formed group respond to each other and the task in hand, and how this changes as the group evolves and become established. Although Tuckman’s work is often referred to by the phrase, ‘storm, norm, perform’, his most recent update of the model, developed with colleague Mary Ann Jensen (Tuckman & Jensen, 2010), has five stages: Form, Storm, Norm, Perform and Adjourn.

Tuckman’s model has relevance for teachers, mediating and guiding pupils as they establish a collaborative class community. Similarly, for school leaders, the annual formation and re-establishing of staff groups can be viewed more purposefully with this model in mind. Tuckman was keen to establish that there are two distinct but related processes going on in group formation: Task Orientation – the way members of the group approach the task; and Interpersonal Orientation – how they view and act towards each other, and their teacher or manager.

Although I have not found any studies that describe a teacher’s or school leader’s role in facilitating the group formation process, I can see that there is potential for using this model to develop deeper collaboration both between pupils and between teachers and pupils – or, if you are a head teacher, between staff and between staff and leadership team- and I outline these possibilities below, alongside a description of each phase.

FORM: In this phase, group membership is identified and the task explored. The members of the group start to get to know each other. For some, this is a new opportunity to excel and gain status, and some welcome new opportunities to get to know people better and look forward to working with a new combination of people. For others, this is a time of uncertainty. Will they fit in? Will they be an outsider or not have a voice? This is a stage when people may either follow or attempt to abandon stereotypes, and individuals may be deciding whether to keep old alliances or develop new ones.

The role of the teacher or manager: Management textbooks explain that a manager can facilitate this stage through setting tasks to help group members to get to know each other and finding ways to encourage a balanced participation from all group members. When collaboration is a desired group characteristic, I suggest that the teacher needs to share their own understanding of group processes with the class or group, so that the pupils are as aware of the processes as the teacher. I don’t see the point of a teacher observing from the sidelines, ‘Oh, I see a bit of the old ‘storming’ going on – that’s quite normal so I won’t interfere just yet’ whilst leaving pupils in the dark. A brief outline of group processes explored and referred to by the class or group could very well prevent some of the negative aspects of group formation, such as fear of rejection or dominance of one or two individuals, and gives a vocabulary for discussion of how things are going. 

STORM: Group members look around them to work out what is and is not acceptable to say or do in this group, who the group leaders might be and where they each fit in. During this process, individuals may compete with each other as leaders, there may be disagreements about the task, the way to work together, or what is or is not acceptable. This is the phase where conflicts arise and differences aired.

The role of the teacher or manager: Traditionally, management at this stage involves the teacher identifying and helping to solve conflicts. However, in a collaborative culture, conflict can be seen as something to be welcomed, as it provides an opportunity for debate and engagement. With prior notice that ‘storming’ is a natural and ‘positive’ group process, pupils can generate ways that they might tackle this when it arises, and reflect explicitly as a class on the productivity and inclusivity of their approaches when reviewing their work as a class or in groups. If no storming seems to be going on, it may be that the group has found cohesion already. Don’t assume that just because individuals have worked together in the past that they are a ready-developed group. The task is different so the dynamics will be different – people will have different confidence and competence levels and expectations for the new task. Maybe they never were such a great group in the first place? If there is no conflict, maybe create some yourself and be open about what you are doing.

NORM: At this stage there is a general acceptance of who is in the group, what the task is and people have worked out the rules of engagement. There is a feeling of group cohesion.

The role of the teacher or manager: At this stage, hopefully, the group has sorted out the interpersonal stuff and is clear about the task. As teacher/manager, your role is to help the group maintain a balance of focus between the tasks and the way that they are working together, what I call ‘communal metacognition.’

PEFORM: A successful Norming phase means that the accepted behaviours and language of the group are understood and individuals feel safe to say what they need to. The performance of the group can be viewed from both interpersonal and task-oriented viewpoints.

The role of the teacher or manager: This could be seen as the stage where the teacher/manager can sit back and observe. There is some truth in this, but as we are taking a collaborative view of group formation, I’d say that this is a great time for the teacher to be giving commentary on what is going on, to raise awareness of the processes and task progression. Maybe you could invite pupils to step out of the group and observe with you. I sing in a choir and occasionally our musical director invites one of us to sit out and listen to the choir and comment on what we see and hear. It really helps to see things from another point of view.

ADJOURN: Tuckman and Jensen added this phase after studying the ways in which their original model had been used and evaluated by other researchers. This final stage describes what happens when a task is finished, or a group disbanded.

The role of the teacher or manager: The teacher/manager can invite the group to find ways to celebrate their time as a group, and to learn and grow from the experience. This also means asking pupils for feedback on your own role in the development and functioning of the group. Teachers wishing to find ways to manage this part of the group process in the current situation of Covid lockdown  might find useful ideas in an article about managing graduation for pupils who are not currently attending school.

The important message of this article is that we can use Tucker’s model in a new, collaborative way.  Teachers and managers can use the Form-Norm-Storm-Perform-Adjourn model to open a discussion at the start of a group-forming process. By sharing and reflecting on the idea that group formation isn’t problem free – it’s natural to encounter some conflict as the group gets sorted –  and accepting that some conflict is a natural but possibly productive aspect of group development, they can take greater responsibility and  control of their own group formation.

As Tuckman’s research was carried out on groups who, presumably from reading his papers, didn’t go through this collaborative discussion, the collaborative approach to group development might look very different. Anybody up for some research on this?

Dr Geraldine Rowe gives a frank account of a group session that seemed like a disaster until she reconnected with Group Development Theory..

What are your thoughts? Do you have another viewpoint? What is your experience of group development? Please leave a comment below and start a discussion.

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1 reply on “Storm, norm, collaborate!”

Great to simultaneously learn about the concept of group formation storming, and how it can be used itself as a discussion point when kicking off collaborative work!

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