Some Good News for Group Work?


You may not know it, because our media didn’t report it: nor did our ministers shout it from the rooftops, but we did rather well in the PISA international comparison tests on Collaborative Problem Solving.

Of the 32 OECD nations, we were somewhere between 8th and 12th place (there’s always a 5% margin of error in the marks, so we can’t be certain exactly where, though that doesn’t stop people plonking us randomly on a slot between the two). We did pretty well in Science too (@15th of 70), though Maths and Literacy were lower – broadly in line with the OECD average. And all were way higher than our score for well being which was one of the lowest. So why is no-one celebrating this good news about collaborative problem-solving?

Perhaps it doesn’t fit in with government policy and ideology – we only have to look at what has happened to the place of soft skills in our curriculum to see they are simply not a priority and have not been for some time. Look at these extracts from speeches from Michael Gove and Nick Gibb between 2013 and 2017:-

These ‘child-centred’ approaches to teaching focus on eliciting and developing ethereal and often poorly-defined skills in pupils. Teacher focus is turned away from ensuring all pupils are taught the core of academic knowledge that they need, and instead teachers attempt to inculcate creativity and problem-solving… We know from decades of research – and most recently from the boom in understanding the workings and limits of human cognition – that this view is deeply misguided.

Nick Gibb 2017

 “Teachers have felt they need to organise group work in which students talk to each other rather than learn from their teacher or texts. This approach is not just constricting the initiative and talent of great teachers by diminishing the power of teaching, it also runs counter to the very best recent research on how children learn.”

Michael Gove 2014

In addition, we constantly see group work and collaborative classroom practice lambasted by the very people purporting to support evidence led practice in the classroom.

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So no wonder all those people are staring at the carpet right now, rather than celebrating our abilities in an area that employers rate highly in terms of the skill sets of their employees.

But beneath the data lies some worrying trends. Although we did well – and had more students achieving at the highest levels than even the top performing country overall – Singapore – our range of ability in this area was a matter for concern. 22% of UK children performed at the lowest level – below Level 2 and most of those children came from disadvantaged backgrounds. Yet at the same time, children from disadvantaged backgrounds reported how highly they valued these skills even if they had less opportunity to learn them. Why is this?

The trends in our changes to curriculum have prioritised individual learning over group learning, not only in terms of government speeches, but in terms of content. Science practicals are disappearing; Speaking and Listening in English, which used to include group discussions, no longer count towards the GCSE grade. There has been a 24% drop in Drama GCSE entries since 2010 – one of the subjects most likely to give children experience of all the soft skills that employers say they value. In fact, for many children, their access to these skills – through team sports, drama, music, collaborative youth clubs (such as cubs and brownies/scouts and guides) and so on are paid for by parents. So those who can’t afford to send Billy to Little Kickers or Stagecoach or any of the other ‘Saturday’ clubs that exist are doubly disadvantaged. They are disappearing from schools to make way for increasingly competitive testing or to cope with funding cuts, and they can’t afford to participate at an extra curricular level. To what extent were the PISA results really a reflection of middle class pastimes?

OR. Could it be that in spite of all the talk of novices, knowledge, textbooks and direct instruction, the majority of teachers remain committed to ensuring that children get access to problem solving, group work, collaborative tasks and dialogic talk? Could it be that they are looking beyond the narrow band of ‘research’ that Nick Gibb speaks of, to a broader body in which they see that dialogic talk reaps benefits in Maths, Science and English (EEF, 2017); or that collaborative learning delivers better outcomes (+5 months) than Phonics (+4).

OR could it be that what we saw was the ghost of a past pedagogy that future 15 year olds will no longer recognise?

Of course, whatever our view, good outcomes in collaboration and problem solving are dependent on good classroom management, clever use of resources, knowledge and teacher skill. Resnick and Michael’s research into effective group work and classroom talk, lays out three modes of accountability that are necessary for group work to impact well on outcomes:-

  1. The work is accountable to knowledge – i.e. the children get their facts right.
  2. The work is accountable to community – i.e. there is mutuality and shared responsibility.
  3. The work is accountable to reason – i.e. their talk is well structured and makes sense.

It seems to me that rather than scripted lessons, whole class teacher tracking and formulaic testing, we need, as a profession, to move towards a better understanding of how to use the pedagogies of group work, inquiry and problem solving to best effect.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the view that the purpose of education is to prepare children for work. But nor should it be about making them less prepared to thrive in the work place. Industry is almost united in arguing the case that they need the following skill set in order of importance in their employees. Moves towards automation are going to make this even more necessary. Any job that can be done without collaboration, critical or creative thinking, is increasingly going to be done by machines. So don’t expect this list to disappear:-

1. Ability to work in a team

2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems

3. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work

4. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization

5. Ability to autonomously obtain and process information

6. Ability to analyze quantitative data

7. Technical knowledge related to the job

8. Proficiency with computer software programs

9. Ability to create and/or edit written reports

10. Ability to influence others

(Source: Forbes, based on a survey by the NACE).

We can see straight away, a complex interplay between independence and autonomy relating to executive functions and those which are collaborative. This isn’t an either/or situation – both are deeply necessary. So how are our pedagogies ensuring that these skills emerge – that children don’t just remember stuff, but learn how to find, analyse, communicate and use information?

What we don’t want to see, is a return to some of the errors of old I saw in the early 2000s – classes set up simply for skills lessons. Pages of rubric attempting to define and measure ‘risk taking’ etc. Children colouring in sheets assessing whether they thought they were a Level 2 or a Level 5 risk taker….bored out of their minds and barely understanding what they were doing. That’s no better than rote chanting of knowledge.

Skills and knowledge sit in tandem, interdependent and changing slightly in relation to the subjects/domains they inhabit. So context is king. It’s possible to have knowledge rich, thriving environments in which students and teachers are working together to solve complex problems, question the world, use their empathy and compassion, knowledge and research skills to investigate solutions. It is possible for them to talk, articulate, debate and communicate big ideas. But all must have access to this. We simply cannot have a curriculum devoid of arts, creativity, talk and problem solving for our most disadvantaged children. It simply widens the gap.


5 thoughts on “Some Good News for Group Work?

    1. Yes, and he used the PISA report to make his case. This highlights a problem I think in defining ‘inquiry’ or ‘enquiry’ led learning. Enquiry in my mind suggests a simple solution – I make an enquiry – I get an answer. But inquiries are often longer, deeper, more complex. To my mind, that involves co-construction between teacher and learner – it’s not a simple ‘go away and find out’ process. But of course, none of these subtleties ever get debated.

  1. Once again Debra is raising important issues in relation to effective teaching and learning. Research by The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) increasingly supports her arguments.

    See these two reports published by EEF in July 2017.

    Dialogic Teaching

    “Dialogic Teaching aims to improve pupil engagement and attainment by improving the quality of classroom talk. Teachers are trained in strategies that enable pupils to reason, discuss, argue and explain rather than merely respond, in order to develop higher order thinking and articulacy. The programme uses video review, print materials and in-school mentoring to support teachers’ practice across English, maths and science lessons.

    This trial found consistent, positive effects in English, science and maths for all children in Year 5, equivalent to about 2 months additional progress.”

    This is consistent with other EEF trials focusing on cognitively challenging talk, such as ‘Philosophy for Children’, and ‘Thinking, Doing, Talking Science’. The consistent results across subjects and the lack of any subject specific content in the training suggest that the approach may improve children’s overall thinking and learning skills rather than their knowledge in a given topic.”

    This EEF conclusion is important as it recognises that the approach is not based on the learning of factual content but on stimulating and supporting the development of cognitive ability. Put simply, the pupils made more progress because the teaching and learning methods used made them cleverer. It is important to note that pupil’s confidence and performance improved in all subjects, not just the ones directly relevant to what the ‘classroom talk’ was about. This is the claim of the long-standing ‘cognitive acceleration‘ movement led by Michael Shayer and the late Philip Adey, backed by a huge amount of peer reviewed research.

    Thinking, Doing, Talking Science

    “Thinking, Doing, Talking Science (TDTS) is a programme that aims to make science lessons in primary schools more practical, creative and challenging. Teachers are trained in a repertoire of strategies that aim to encourage pupils to use higher order thinking skills. For example, pupils are posed ‘Big Questions’, such as ‘How do you know that the earth is a sphere?’ that are used to stimulate discussion about scientific topics and the principles of scientific enquiry.”

    Thinking, Doing, Talking Science appeared to have a positive impact on the attainment of pupils in science. Overall, Year 5 pupils in schools using the approach made approximately three additional months’ progress.”

    This too was an initiative based not on ‘telling by the teacher and listening by the pupils’, but on the development of general cognitive ability through metacognition, pupil to pupil and pupil to teacher debate.

    Read more about the implications of EEF research here

  2. An excellent piece, Debra. Selective use of the research that justifies the argument is far from helpful from our politicians. They should take an overview and be prepared to alter their stance if appropriate, rather than stubbornly following an ideological line.

  3. I also share your concern for the narrowing of access to extracurricular activities that help broaden a child’s education. But I’m not so sure about your suggestions based on the Pisa data. As I understand it, you are suggesting that because the Pisa results were on average quite good, group work must still be prevalent despite current political fashion. But could the opposite also be a valid interpretation? That the improved Pisa results are a consequence of a shift in pedagogical approach with an increased focus on knowledge? Its not obvious to me that the practice of group work in lessons is related to the outcome of improved problem solving. This interpretation is still consistent with the results and which view one subscribes to seems to be determined only by one’s pedagogical preferences.

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