Talk may be cheap but group work is priceless

Cooperative learning has fallen out of favour with many teachers but it offers myriad benefits. Just ensure you set the ground rules
6th February 2015, 12:00am
James Mannion & Neil Mercer


Talk may be cheap but group work is priceless

According to TES columnist Tom Bennett: "Group work: I hate the concept, as I hate hell, all Montagues and thee. I bite my thumb at it.An efficient way to learn? Not so much" ("Consider this a divorce", Comment, 5 September).

Similarly, Robert Peal - a teacher described by England's former education secretary Michael Gove as "one of the brightest young voices in the education debate" - writes on his blog: "Whenever I am asked where the group work is in my lessons, I respond with the same answer: the class has been put into a group of 30 and their group task is to listen to the teacher and work in silence" (bit.lyGroupWorkLies).

Less strident voices have also expressed concerns about group work. For example, secondary headteacher Ros McMullen writes on her blog: "We subject learners to group work because it `develops the skills needed in later life', except it really doesn't" (bit.lyGroupWorkLearning).

Clearly, these views are valid because they are rooted in experience. But should ideas be dismissed simply because some teachers have difficulty making them work? Is group work really a waste of time? Or have we simply misunderstood what it is and how it should look in the classroom?

There is another side to the story, one that critics often overlook. And in doing so, intentionally or otherwise, they help to perpetuate a mindset, a pedagogy and a curriculum that sells young people short. In not using group work, students are denied the chance to develop skills that not only help them to perform better in school but are also vital for their future employment prospects - not to mention the realisation of a more fully participatory democracy.

Group work groupthink

So how did we get to this point? Over the past 30 years, education research has yielded a wealth of information about what makes group work productive and why it is important that children learn how to do it well. It has also given us simple steps that students and teachers can take in order to make group work valuable.

This should mean that teachers rarely get group work "wrong". And yet they do. We need to recognise that group work may fail simply because it is badly executed: the research hasn't filtered down so staff and students don't know how to do it properly.

Some people take immediate exception to this suggestion, assuming that it apportions blame to the teacher, as can be seen in Bennett's declaration that "It's not me, group work - it's you." But there is an alternative explanation: teachers and students just haven't been taught how to make it work.

Putting that right is relatively simple. Research into what makes teamwork effective, in workplaces as well as schools, has shown the importance of ground rules (see Interthinking: putting talk to work by Karen Littleton and Neil Mercer).

Group work in the classroom and elsewhere commonly goes wrong because the participants are following inappropriate ground rules. These include keeping good ideas to themselves, letting the most confident speakers dominate, never disagreeing with friends and never listening to opposing views.

Some students may also share Peal's view that group work is just a break from real learning and waste time accordingly.

Ensuring effective guidelines

One of the first things you should do as a teacher is to identify the inappropriate patterns of behaviour being followed and discuss them with students. They may be unaware that they are following these protocols, so it is helpful to point them out and discuss why they are detrimental.

Next, you need to construct better ground rules. This can be done quite easily and the research offers plenty of examples to frame discussions. For example:

l Everyone should contribute and take turns to speak.

l All ideas should be shared and considered.

l Ideas should be justified with reasons.

l Challenges are encouraged but students must disagree with the point, not the person.

l Try to reach agreement, don't just agree to differ.

When such rules are established, the quality of group discussions can be transformed over the course of a school term. As demonstrated in the literature reviews carried out in 2010 by Robert Slavin ("Cooperative learning: what makes group work work?" in The Nature of Learning) and Christine Howe (Peer Groups and Children's Development), a systematic approach to training children in the art of discussion leads to significant gains in subject learning. This can include everything from reading comprehension and written English to maths, science and the humanities, as well as improvement in cognitive tests of verbal, non-verbal and numerical reasoning.

What's more, by learning how to work well in teams, young people are acquiring the soft skills that are valued by employers throughout the world, and promoted by schools in high-achieving countries such as Singapore.

Chief among those soft skills is oracy. Group work is a fantastic tool for teaching the ability to speak and to listen. It means that these skills can be taught through the same traditional methods that characterise most good teaching: modelling, deliberate practice and plenty of high-quality feedback (see social mobility charity the Sutton Trust's report What Makes Great Teaching?, bit.lySuttonEffectiveTeaching).

Some adventurous schools in the UK have recognised this already. They have been quietly demonstrating the significant benefits associated with a focus on developing students' speaking skills, and group work plays a crucial role. For example, School 21 in East London strongly emphasises the development of students' communication; a recent Ofsted report rates the school as outstanding in every category, noting that its oracy-led curriculum enables students to "develop extraordinary skills in listening, speaking and questioning".

Right time, right place

Of course, we are not advocating the use of group work in all lessons, or for all topics all the time. It should be used strategically, and as a complement to personal study, instruction and whole-class discussion. But where participants have been trained and supported to develop the necessary skills, group work is a fantastic classroom tool.

Perhaps in the future, before giving up on group work - and as a result on students' chances of learning from each other and becoming effective team workers and confident speakers - colleagues might consider paying a visit to School 21 or to the University of Cambridge's Thinking Together website (

There they can see what "good group work" looks like, and find out how it can work for them and, more importantly, for the young people in their classes.

James Mannion is lead professional for science at Varndean School in Brighton and a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge. Neil Mercer is professor of education and vice-president of Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge

What else?

Enable effective group work by using these cards to assign roles.


"Working with others" strategies for collaborative success.


A group presentation task incorporating peer- and self-assessment.


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