There’s been some recent “discussion” on Twitter about group work in schools. I say discussion. It often becomes more assertion, with a selected piece of writing being trailed as the essential truth.
Over a long career, I have seen many incarnations of group based activity, some of which worked extremely effectively and some that didn’t work for a variety of reasons.
Group based activity requires a task that is designed to engage the challenge the group, as a whole, to participate in the process of creating something or finding a solution to a problem together. They should be a collaborative partnership, incorporating all members of the group.
Tasks should enable discussion and decision making by the group, who then take responsibility for their planned initial decisions and actions and for the reflective journey which may result in changes to the original plan.
Resources, space and time are all restrictive elements for some kinds of group work, and, where group work fails, it is often because one or more of these variables have been ignored, providing limits to the group capacity to succeed.
Group size can be a limiting factor. The process of learning to work together starts with a partner, then in threes, etc. This can be frequently seen in PE/games, where small team games are a part of skill application in small scale situations. Where group work becomes a “thing”, organised with different participants selected in different roles, this puts a different complexion on the process, as play acting the given role overtakes the purpose of the task.
The flexibility to use group work effectively was a key element of Primary classroom practice up until 1997, when the National Strategy introduction began to push teachers to whole class approaches. Space, time, and resources were a part of classroom creation, with areas available for a range of activities, resources available in labelled drawers and time given to the task that showed how the time was to be used and the expectation of an outcome. With a growing number of TAs, it was possible to deploy someone to keep an eye, either on the class while the teacher intervened, or the group as a guide/facilitator. I managed to employ one TA with a science and DT background/interest, and another with an art specialism so some specific additional skills were often available to support learning.
I can see, for some teachers, who move from room to room, that it might be easier to turn up with minimal resources and just teach, particularly if the teacher voice is the significant resource, to impart specific areas of knowledge. The current approach to timetabling, setting and streaming and withdrawal groups in Primary is also a very limiting factor, especially for space and time. It does mean some resources are now often underused.
However, discussion is group work and this has a place in all teaching and learning, in that learners articulating their thoughts are akin to testing, as it is an externalisation of their thinking. With some kind of recording facility, it is possible to focus the group on the task in hand, by creating a “listener” at the table. With my career being long enough, this was done with a tape recorder, turned to record. It focused minds and kept the groups to task; iPads and digital microphones are now available.
As a headteacher, the benefits of group work outweighed any supposed disadvantage, as, by working together, the children learned to respect each other, which in turn supported the school motto of “Thinking, working and playing together”. Playground issues became minimal over time, as children developed very good social skills. They saw the “team” in many different ways, from the pair, through to the class, through to their school.
In other words, they saw that they had a place and that they belonged. They understood the idea of collaboration.
Teaching is a team Game