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Why it's time to say goodbye to group work

Group work causes problems with behaviour and limits students' understanding, so perhaps it's time we stopped using it, says Grainne Hallahan

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Group work causes problems with behaviour and limits students' understanding, so perhaps it's time we stopped using it, says Grainne Hallahan

We have gathered here today to say our farewells to group work. Descended from the kinaesthetic-learning-style dynasty and a loyal friend to the edutainment clan, group work lived a long life. It will live on in some form or other – probably as targets on observation forms, when the observer can’t think of anything constructive to say.

“They’re doing group work!” Beams the classroom teacher, standing in front of a class who are chatting and squabbling noisily. There is paper and stationery everywhere – and a slightly frenzied look in the teacher’s eye as she stops them every few minutes to shout at them to keep the noise down. They’re learning about life in Jacobean England and trying to make connections to Macbeth. “They’re going to feedback soon.” She strains her voice, trying to be heard over the noise.

The presentations are excruciating. Some groups begin with an awkward silence, then mutterings of, “you read it! I’m not reading it!” and confessions of, “we didn’t get it”. And then groans from the class.

The teacher calls up the group who seemed to have been the most focused. They begin: “Shakespeare’s family were called Shakespeare’s men…”

“No, no, no.” The teacher cuts them off. They’ve misread it. The teacher orders everyone to go back in their places and teaches them for the last 10 minutes, catching them up on what they’ve missed or misunderstood.

Group work problems

If you have ever heard “group work should take place every lesson” or “group work should extend over a series of lessons” and cringed, you are not alone. If you’re teaching challenging subject matter, this will require teacher instruction. So, if students are doing something in class that doesn’t require your intervention...then they should be doing it at home.

Group work also causes problems with behaviour. Whenever a parental complaint comes in about the behaviour of a normally problem-free class, my group-work 'spidey-sense' tingles. A quick check of the books, and it transpires that the class are in the middle of some huge extended group project, and haven’t had a normal lesson for weeks. Now, arguments are spilling over from lunch, since normal lesson structure has been abandoned.

Fashions come and go, but the group work one has hung around like skinny jeans – and, just like skinny jeans, it is uncomfortable and unsuitable for the majority of the population.

Equip them with skills

Group work is sometimes held up as a shining example of a “21st-century skill” and supposedly as a good preparation for working life – but there is a big difference between teamwork and group work. Being a good team player isn’t something that group work necessarily teaches you. The best way to prepare students for working as part of a team? Equip them with the skills and knowledge to get qualifications, so they can get a job and have a chance to become part of a team.

Is there such thing as good group work? Well, if you do decide to incorporate group tasks into your lessons, stick to these three principles:

  • Plan guided discussions, with topics updated and changed "live", rather than providing a list of points to rush through.
  • Assign defined tasks that must be completed in a clear time frame.
  • Keep group sizes to a maximum of three students – and limit tasks to no longer than 20 minutes.


Grainne Hallahan has been teaching English in Essex for 10 years. She is part of the #TeamEnglish Twitter group

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