I don't remember working in groups much in middle school. In fact, the only two times I can clearly remember were a partner project about Syria in 6th grade, and a partner checking a math assignment in 8th grade. Teaching pedagogy was different back then, I guess. My teachers were all older and out of college before the big cooperative learning push. As a result, most of my middle schooling consisted of sitting quietly in a row and being taught at for seven periods a day.
We now know that this isn't the best approach. Kids learn by interacting - both with the content and with each other. You can't have social studies without being social. I remember being terrified of the idea as a new teacher - what if they start talking, and never stop? Then, I learned the secret to effective classroom management - keeping students engaged in and excited about the content! And, the best way to do that is to allow them to interact with the content in cooperative groups. The best, longest lasting learning comes from them explaining things to each other in their own words - helping each other make connections between the content and things they're interested in that I have no real understanding of (for instance, did you know Instachat and Snapbook aren't real things?).
The missing step is training and practice. I have several "go to" interactive strategies I use on an almost daily basis - Round Robin, Rally Robin and Rally Robin Race. These three (and their written variations) are great at getting students talking, saying time and staying on task quickly. Click the link below for a free set of cooperative learning posters (pictured above) and the table mats that make them work. Something I use when installing these strategies is my Back to School Teambuilding Activities. We use the games and activities to practice how to work in groups. It is always helpful to install a new strategy doing something fun rather than something content-related, and these work well for me. Finally, don't forget to visit my store for more great Social Studies resources most of which encourage students to interact with each other in productive ways.
I'm an 18 year veteran teacher that loves teaching, coaching, writing, and my family.