A broader definition of group-work would include our place in the broader life of community, how we interact with each other as citizens. Since most of us live in villages, towns and cities, we have to accept the rules by which we all live. Many of these rules can be described as a “how to” guide, many of them derived from the Ten Commandments, things that cause dispute, anger and retaliation, a diminution of group life. Children need to learn the rights and responsibilities of group living.
When children enter school at Nursery or in the Reception class, they are, by and large egocentric in their behaviours. They will have some social skills learned at home, like turn taking or sharing, but there is a need for them to learn to socialise within a larger group in order to make the most of school.
Working together requires the development of negotiation skills, linked with basic manners. Could I please have….? Would you like….?
Negotiation skills would include asking someone do something, following a request, responding to an expressed view, how to handle disagreement.
Being an active participant in a group task allows insights into the speech, ideas, manners, viewpoints of others. Learning that discussion is two-way, perhaps that others know more, but that’s ok, because we can learn from each other.
Group work can, if well-ordered and organised for, can provide depth to many learning situations. It’s important to stress the well-ordered and organised aspect, because these factors can make or break group activity. By this, I do not mean “recipe” group work, where every step is controlled by an adult, but creating the working space appropriately, with resources likely to be needed available easily.
Every area of the curriculum is capable of supporting and being enhanced by some aspects of group activity, with a significant focus on developing oracy. It is possible to ask a group of learners to discuss an issue before being involved in general discussion. For this, group size can vary, from two up. This skill can be further developed with problem solving activities, where there is a need to develop a range of potential experimental routes, deciding on their merits or otherwise, resourcing appropriately, creating an effective workspace, carrying out the task, reviewing and evaluating, recording.
Starting as a secondary teacher of science, environmental studies and geography, pupils gained a great deal of insight from discussion of issues. It allowed them to clarify their thinking, permitted them to challenge ideas and to be challenged. A carousel of practical activities in science might allow a small group to gain insight by making something work.
Primary, however, became my main love and it was a delight to use the same ideas with younger children. What intrigued me was the way the children themselves would identify the points where they were stuck and had a need for a new skill, which could then be taught in context, so it could be instantly used and applied. Having been given permission to think in this way, it was noticeable how independent the children were able to become. They took on greater responsibility, including collection and organisation of resources. As there was not classroom TA at the time, that was a great boon.
Group based problem-solving, in every curriculum area became the norm in the classroom. By becoming the norm, the children developed working methodologies which further supported successful completion of the tasks; they developed significant personal and group capability, including a well-developed independence.
- Create a collage that represents spring.
- Design and make a crazy golf hole. Ask individuals to try it and record their achievements.
- Create a storyboard. Use this to select instruments with which to make a sound story.
- Set up a fair test to find out which paper is best to send a parcel through the post.
- Here’s a maths problem. In a group, come up with possible solutions.
- Paired work in educational gymnastics.
- Small team games in PE.
Group work is the means by which many children develop skills associated with self. They learn about themselves in the context of others. They become self-aware, develop self-belief, a growing self-reliance, self-esteem and self-possession, self-sufficient and have a view of their self-worth. All of these traits support a developing independence.
Children from a very young age show that they can be independent. In fact it is independent skills that are encouraged by parents, to make their lives easier, such as putting on clothes, getting out and putting away games, watching a TV programme alone while parent cooks the meal.
We need learners capable of being independent, but also capable of working collaboratively. The skills are not mutually exclusive and need to be progressively developed, or they become rusty or unlearned. Good group work supports a broad spectrum of learning, of “stuff” and self.