Few subjects polarise opinion among teachers as much as group work.
Some teachers love it. They think that it helps children to get their heads around complex problems, encourages critical thinking and decision making, and it also promotes interaction with their peers and valuable social skills.
Others hate it. They believe it’s a complete waste of time and energy because it can cause behavioural problems and actually limit students’ understanding. As a result, they argue teachers should stop doing it.
One of the reasons it’s such a divisive subject is group work is hard to do well, so perhaps those teachers who tend to feel negatively towards it haven’t been using it in the most effective manner.
That’s what James Mannion, lead professional for science at Varndean School in Brighton, and Neil Mercer, professor of education and vice-president of Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge, think. In an article for Tes, they argue that group work didn’t deserve the public bashing it’s received from some teachers.
“Clearly, these [negative] views are valid because they are rooted in experience,” they write. “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?”
One person who echoes these sentiments is Christine Howe, emeritus professor of education at the University of Cambridge. Howe is a developmental psychologist and her main areas of interest are children’s conceptual knowledge and their peer relations and communicative competence. Over the past 20 years she has brought these two interests together via research into interactive learning in peer group, tutor-led and computer-mediated settings.
Howe says that based on her own research projects, more teachers have a positive attitude towards group work than those that don’t, although she recognises there is some negativity towards it.
Like Mannion and Mercer, she attributes this sentiment to teachers who have not used group work in an effective manner.
“If you can’t do things well and if you haven’t been well trained in the properties of successful group work, then you may set up a task that misfires badly,” says Howe. “And if you have a negative experience it’s human tendency to assume that’s the truth. I suspect there is a little bit of that, because when I see [negative] quotes [about group work] they are usually generalisations from personal experience.”
She concedes that one of the reasons some teachers have negative experiences of group work is because it’s challenging to do well.
“You have to prepare the particular tasks carefully because if everyone comes to the same right or wrong solution you’re not going to have a good discussion,” explains Howe. “You have to have a task where there will be lots of differences of opinion and you have to have tasks that will engage the children. So the children need to be prepared for group work and the tasks need to be well thought out. It’s not straightforward, but it can be done.”
The reason this extra effort is worth it is because group work is a great way of helping kids to master the curriculum, according to Howe. She says that several studies show that through successful group work with their peers, children can develop a better understanding of concepts in just about any subject (but it’s more commonly used in Stem lessons and that’s where most of the research into the effectiveness of group work has taken place).
Howe says there are other spin-off benefits of group work, such as helping to prepare children for employment after they complete their studies. “In the world of work, teamwork – as we all know – is important and working together in groups at school helps prepare children for those different social rules.”
So how do you do it well?
First, Howe believes that you have to create a set of guidelines that children working in groups need to abide by.
“For years, my colleague Neil Mercer used a strategy of getting teachers to work with children to negotiate what he calls “ground rules” of very effective interaction and making these rules very explicit, so maybe having a poster in classroom that lists them,” says Howe.
“You should certainly engage the students in the derivation of these rules, because they’re not like school rules that are imposed from on high. A teacher who has a clear idea of the properties of good group work will work with the children so there is a collaborative understanding of what’s involved here. By recording it [and putting it on a poster in the classroom] everybody is reminded of the rules every time they do some group work.”
Howe says rules could include the likes of ‘we make sure that everyone says what they think’, ‘we listen respectfully to everyone’s ideas’ and ‘when we disagree, we give reasons for our opinions and try to resolve our differences’.
She says that based on research findings, children of all ages can all benefit from group working and that the size of the group doesn’t really matter as long as people are actively participating.
“That doesn’t mean to say that they have to all be talking at the time, or they have to be attentively listening, but they’ve got to be engaging with each other’s ideas, exchanging opinions and working towards some collaborative solution to whatever task they are working,” says Howe.
It’s also vitally important that teachers choose appropriate tasks for group working to be effective and that students get used to working in groups – like anything else, it takes practice.
“Not every task is going to profit from group work,” she adds. “You want a task where there will be a range of different opinions among the students.”
Howe says a poor choice of topic or task is one of the main reasons group work fails.
“If the solution is too obvious or too hard, the students won’t have productive discussions. The topic must be challenging and amenable to a range of opinions, but not impossible,” she adds.
Another reason group work sometimes doesn’t work is the social dynamics within the group are wrong. “For example, one student is dominating, or bitchy comments are being made about certain students. One context where I’ve seen the latter is when the group contains SEN students, especially in the middle years of primary school when the students are aware of special needs, but don’t know how to handle it.”
Excessive teacher moderation can also lead to the failure of some group working tasks. That’s why Howe says that once children have been split up into groups and the task has been set, it’s important that teachers take a back seat and give the kids plenty of space so that they can work through the problem. She also advises against teachers “descending” on groups the minute they finish the task in hand to ask what their solution to the problem was, or to share the correct answer with them.
“The reason I don’t think that’s very helpful is there is quite a lot of evidence that to enjoy the optimum effects [of group work], children not only have to engage in the group interaction, but they also have to think a little bit afterwards,” says Howe. “You won’t necessarily get the optimum outcome within the group itself immediately after the conclusion of their interaction. The children need to go away and put it all together.
“In some of my research I’ve found that progress has been made over quite a long period after the groups [ended], so if teachers jump in too quickly, or too explicitly, they can sometimes undermine that process of “post-group reflection” as I sometimes call it.”
What it is useful for teachers to do at the end of tasks is to provide additional material that will help them to develop their thinking on the subject, such as weblinks, posters on classroom walls or even group outings.
“These things can all help to consolidate what’s been happening in groups,” says Howe. “The teacher has an absolutely crucial role to play in group work, but it shouldn’t be too heavy-handed, too sudden or too directed.”
Teachers also need to self-evaluate group work tasks constantly in order to fine tune the process and ensure that it is being doing correctly.
“It’s not just a question of whether or not they came up with the right answer,” she says. “Was everyone involved in the interaction, did they split up into sub-groups, did they share ideas?”
By monitoring these things Howe says teachers can quickly establish whether or not the group work actually worked and use these observations to inform future sessions.
Of course, there is plenty of research out there that suggests group work has flaws: such as the fact it can give some children an opportunity to opt out, that it promotes laziness, that it is an inefficient method of achieving a learning objective, and that it can promote bad behaviour. But according to the Education Endowment Foundation, the majority view is that, done well, collaborative learning has a positive impact.
And no one is pretending, Howe says, that group work is easy to get right. It requires meticulous planning. But the benefits of group work, she believes, make it worth the effort.
Simon Creasey is a freelance writer