Teachers tend to shun small group activities but, properly organised, they really boost results. Adi Bloom reports
working in groups can help pupils understand classroom topics more quickly and achieve higher results, according to academics at Brighton and Cambridge universities and London's Institute of Education.
Group work is often underused in British schools. While pupils may sit in groups, researchers believe that teachers rarely encourage them to work together.
Their report, published by the institute's teaching and learning research programme, says: "Groups in classrooms are often formed without a strategic view of their purpose... Instead, pupils work individually or as a whole class, and thus find themselves in an environment that often allows them to be distracted by social talk."
The researchers worked with teachers at local schools to devise a means of better integrating group work with school life. They then monitored pupils' progress over the academic year. The teachers and researchers focused on developing group-work skills, teaching pupils to respect each other, as well as how to plan, organise and evaluate their work.
"We cannot just put children into groups and expect them to work well together," the report says, "particularly when adults can also find it difficult to work with others."
Instead, they integrated group work into overall classroom structures. For example, class seating was arranged to facilitate group activities. And teachers were asked to consider the size and composition of groups, as well as the frequency with which they were used.
Despite teachers' concerns that group work might restrict curriculum coverage, the researchers found that the strategy had a notably positive effect on pupils' academic progress.
At key stage 1, benefits were seen in reading and maths. For KS2 pupils, it had a significant effect on their work in science, particularly in conceptual understanding and inferential thinking. And KS3 pupils appeared to understand their work better for having discussed it in groups.
At KS1, pupils preferred working in pairs or small groups to working individually. The effect on pupil motivation at KS2 was less clear-cut, but researchers believe that group work also helped older pupils to maintain interest in topics covered in the classroom.
Their report says: "Pressures arising from the curriculum and the classroom context mean a heavy emphasis on whole-class teaching, followed by individual work, with little room for group work.
"Other research indicates that teachers can feel unsatisfied with whole-class teaching, especially when they have a strong belief in the value of addressing the individual needs of pupils."
The researchers believe that pupils should be given the chance to work together regularly.
"We suggest that, given space and time to develop pupils' group-working skills, teachers can bring about a transformation in the teaching and learning environment," they say.
"It offers learning possibilities ... not provided by either teacher-led or individual work, and can contribute to... work and classroom behaviour."
* For more information, go to www.tlrp.org