For me, what makes my group work go the smoothest is to teach the students physical group behavior before I actually give them anything to do in the group. So I like to concentrate initially just on the physical movement of bodies and desks. So, for example, I might teach a procedure - a three-step procedure - that works like this: "Students, we're going to learn how to get into groups today. This is a three-step procedure. Step one: Two rows are going to turn to face each other to create pairs, so these two rows, and these two rows, and these two rows. Then two sets of pairs are going to smoosh together, corners of their desks touching, to create a group of four. Then you're going to go back into rows."
And then we practice. "All right, students. When I say the word 'go,' let's please get into groups of four in silence, corners of the desks touching, and see how long it takes us. Ready and go." And I time them. They get into groups. We debrief. "That was pretty good. We're all in groups. But you guys over here, corners of your desks aren't touching, and over here, there was some talking. This is a silent activity. Let's see if we can do it in silence, and let's go back into rows." And on the floor I will mark where the first chair in each row has to go, so that they know where to put their chair, and then everybody in their row can line up after them.
I always get a question when I'm doing this activity with my students. Somebody will always ask me, "Mrs. Dearborn, why do the corners of the desks have to touch?" And then I do something I do all the time in the classroom. I quote research that doesn't exist. "Students, the reason the corners of your desks have to touch is because studies show when the corners of students' desks touch, they are more focused and they learn more." Fifteen years in the classroom and nobody has ever questioned that research, so I keep on quoting it.
And we go back into rows. And then we do it again, and we debrief again. And then we do it again, and we debrief again. And then I get this question every year: "Mrs. Dearborn, what are we doing today?" to which I always respond, "We are learning how to get in and out of groups of four, so let's try it again."
Now when they can get into groups of four in 30 seconds or less, in silence, corners of all the desks touching, then I will lightly season that particular procedure with some content. I'll give them something to do inside of their groups of four. But I always start with just the physical movement of chairs and desks, because that's how you make group work run smoothly in the classroom.