Exploring the group dynamic

1st September 2000 at 01:00
David Budge talks to one of the education researchers who will benefit from the biggest-ever funding award

WHICH tasks do children perform best in groups? And what size of group is ideal for particular classroom activities?

Experienced teachers may believe that they can answer such questions. But Professor Peter Blatchford of the University of London's Institute of Education is convinced that we still have a lot to learn about the effects that group work can have on children's motivation and attainment.

Professor Blatchford has waded into these research waters before, courtesy of Economic and Social Research Council grants. But having won one of the ESRC's coveted Teaching and Learning Research Programme grants (see below and right) he and his colleagues will be able to immerse themselves in the subject for the next four years.

The study he is to conduct with Professor Maurice Galton, of Homerton College, Cambridge, and Professor Peter Kutnik, of the University of Brighton, will be the biggest into group work ever mounted in the UK. It will focus on Years 1, 5 and 7 and involve a total of 180 teachers in London, Cambridgeshire and East Sussex.

"Classroom groups are often created to manage behaviour, but they don't often have a pedagogical rationale," Professor Blatchford said. "Even though children are placed in groups they often work alone. This is a pity because the potential for group work to have important effects on children's attainmet and motivation is pretty huge."

The performance and attitudes of children who take part in the experiments will be compared with pupils in control groups. But Professor Blatchford insists that it will be "business as usual" in all the schools involved.

"Our work will have to be integrated into everyday classroom contexts," he said. "The exercise has to be authentic."

He does not promise dramatic discoveries. "We'll be putting together what's known from our earlier research and other studies and testing it."

But he does promise that they will make every effort to ensure that their findings are translated into practice. The researchers are considering how their insights could be used in initial teacher training, and for pupils with language problems or emotional and behavioural difficulties.

"One problem with education is that although there are some tremendous ideas out there they are often terribly localised," he said. "And most researchers haven't been terribly good at disseminating their findings. This ESRC programme should help change that and I think education research needs this initiative very much. There's something to be said for having a small number of large projects that will have a big impact."

The findings from Blatchford and Kutnik's earlier investigation into class grouping and learning at key stages 3 and 4 will be presented at the British Educational Research Association Conference in Cardiff next Thursday

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