The whole is better than the parts

It's hard to admit it, but there are limits to group work teaching. Jacqueline Pye argues that the old way was less stressful and laid the foundations for better pupil behaviour.

Primary school teachers must surely be searching their souls on whole-class teaching, and wondering about Chris Woodhead's prescription for more of it.

Many were trained, and strive to practise, on the "group work good, whole-class bad" principle. However, can it be coincidence that teaching was so much less stressful in days of yore?

While there are clear benefits from carefully prepared, monitored and marked group work, it really is time that whole-class teaching was appreciated for the many advantages it offers. And this goes beyond simple measurable attainments.

Teachers stand to gain a great deal from whole-class teaching, in the quality of life in the classroom and at home. Preparing a lesson to be delivered to all pupils together takes a lot less time than preparing for several different activities at one time.

Part of this time can be used to refine the lesson plan or for planning. This will reduce the level of stress for teachers, since less of their so-called leisure time is requisitioned by school duties.

Classroom time is better, with the teacher knowing that something is being achieved for all pupils, rather than worrying constantly that blue group needs her a little, but yellow group needs her a lot. And the constant queues for attention disappear like chips at the self-serve canteen.

However, there is a much more important benefit to be gained from whole-class teaching, which is as yet unrecognised and unproven - although the argument is very seductive and, I think, thoroughly convincing.

This concerns the longer-term relationships between pupils and teachers, which culminate all too often in poor behaviour which continues in secondary schools.

Here is a possible way to lay the foundations for better teacher-pupil relationships at secondary school.

It is a matter of basic social psychology - eye contact and social relationships. Imagine a class of Year 3 pupils in the late summer term. Most are eight, though a few are still seven. They sit in groups. You are a student teacher, sitting in the corner of the room, with a clipboard and a stopwatch. You have to observe their interactions, including eye contact, and the proportion of time spent "on task". While the children are involved in group work, they will be "off task" for a surprisingly high percentage of the time. And what are they doing when "off task"?

Most likely they are looking at other pupils, probably those sitting opposite, or talking to their neighbour. Over a time span such as a school year, this means that they make relationships of a sort with all of their group at the table. Relationships that become stronger than those which they develop with their teacher.

This leads to the "us and them" perception which dogs some pupils through secondary school, and can lead to disaffection, suspension or exclusion for the pupil, and stress for the teacher.

In contrast, where a high percentage of time is spent in whole-class teaching, this surely allows the teacher to develop relationships with all pupils. Pupil-to-pupil relationships grow naturally in the playground and outside school and develop in healthy ways through co-operative working in the classroom. But the teacher has only classroom time to forge a productive bond with the pupils. This can be accomplished only where there is direct eye-contact and talk between the two. It can and must be increased.

The advantage, then, in whole-class teaching is a more fruitful teacher-pupil relationship. If good foundations are laid in the primary years, then pupils will be more likely to relate well to their secondary teachers, and to be willing to listen to what they have to say. Result: pupils adopt the habit of attending to the teacher, which precludes much of the fooling around which is evident in secondary classes.

Add to that a more orderly class, more confident teachers, more time spent in direct transfer of knowledge and less disaffection, and you have a more efficient education system. Pupils remain better integrated in school, and absorb more information, and teachers don't take early retirement, but remain in their jobs with less stress and more energy. Could such an important pay-off cost so little?

Jacqueline Pye is a chartered educational psychologist

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