Making Group Work Work.


I’ve been grumpy today with people berating Group Work. But I’m a teacher, so instead of giving them detention or lines, I thought “why not teach them how to do decent group work?”

Now this is by no means exhaustive – people have dedicated their whole professional lives to this, but it’s just some of the things I’ve found useful in understanding how to get the best out of working in groups.

Group Work – Why bother?

Teachers are overworked, right? So why should they spend time learning yet another skill when there’s so much to do? Well it depends on how you view the purpose of education I suppose. If it’s just to get children through tests, then you’re right (kind of – there is evidence of impact on test results from high quality group talk). But if you think you’re there with something bigger in mind – whether that something is economic and linked to future jobs and prosperity, or something social, or about building meaningful and happy lives, then we can’t get away from the facts that groups matter.

Job interviews often include an element of group work. Even for his part time post at Lush, my middle child had to undertake a group work task. For his management position in advertising, so did my eldest. Both are expected to effectively take part in group work regularly and it played a part in them being offered places at university. What’s the point in qualifications, if alone, they don’t get you any further?

“But education is more than just jobs…it’s about loving knowledge…”

Lovely. A lonely life of penury comforted by the knowledge of the rock cycle. I think perhaps we can amount to more than that.

Group work, first and foremost is about giving children the opportunity to talk. We know from EEF research, that dialogic talk impacts on academic test results. But there are also social benefits to talk. We know from Susan Pinker’s groundbreaking book, The Village Effect, that people who interact socially and speak regularly with others tend to live longer. Loneliness alters our physiology not just our psychology. Learning to get along with, interact with, negotiate with and create with others, is key to our health. We are social beings. Being able to function in groups literally keeps us alive.

I understand that there are enough societal ills heaped on teachers and that this is making the job almost impossible. But surely, the bottom line we should all be asking is “what do I need to give these children the best shot at a successful life?” And to do whatever we can to achieve that. In that sense, it’s hard to argue against socialising modes of learning. Like group work.

The Problem with Group Work:

Working well in groups doesn’t come easy. As well as having the requisite knowledge, vocabulary and confidence to make effective contributions, there are all kinds of human conditions prone to inhibiting the work. Reticence, laziness, domineering, over confidence – almost every human flaw inhibits effective groups work. Some people are overly keen. Some people are overly not – in the same way that some people find reading or maths easier or more enjoyable than others. We don’t tend to say  in those cases, to the ones who don’t care for Maths or Reading, that they needn’t bother – that it’s probably a waste of time. We don’t say “well I’m sure if we just nail other areas of the curriculum, numeracy and literacy will naturally follow.” Learning to speak well, to listen well, to gesture well, to apply knowledge well, to communicate that knowledge to others well,  to commit, to present, to understand and help others to understand…well, like with anything else, it takes practice.

Setting ground rules:

Some lessons and tasks are more suited to group work than others. Don’t feel you have to use it every lesson. And if you do use it, you need what you need for all other kinds of teaching activity:-

  • A clear sense of purpose.
  • A shared understanding of the structures that will get best results.
  • Clear expectations and outcomes.

In this respect, the work of Sarah Michaels and Lauren Resnick is really helpful. Their work on accountable talk has shown that well structured group work impacts on the structure of the brain and leads to improved academic outcomes. The accountability they speak of centres around three key areas, which need to be clear to the students:-

  1. The talk is accountable to the community. There is shared responsibility and an outcome to the talk. It is not vague – it has a purpose and the students will always be expected to share their outcomes with the learning community. There’s no ‘just talk about this and we’ll vaguely feed back”. There are explicit expectations around contributions, listening, responding, respecting and sharing.
  2. The talk is accountable to knowledge: in a nutshell, the students are expected to get their facts straight. This expectation is a pre-requisite to the work. They will be held accountable to the quality of their knowledge, whether it has been given to them in advance or acquired through their own research.
  3. The talk is accountable to logic or rigorous thinking: Students use their talk to hypothesise, critique, offer suggestions and draw conclusions. They use and ask each other for evidence, speak in logical and structured ways and offer coherence.

Where these conditions are met, the work is effective and productive for all. The oracy project at Tower Hamlets showed how effectively these structures could work with children of all ages and there has been extensive work with useful resources by many other organisations such as @Voice21Oracy in the UK to help teachers to structure high quality group work.

In the same way that we would assist students to structure writing with sentence starters, key vocabulary and expectations around timings and length, the same is true of group work.

Getting everyone involved.

One of the key areas of difficulty around group work is ensuring that all students make an effective contribution. Group work gets a harder time in this respect than writing. We tend to accept when we set a written task that some kids will work harder on it than others and do better than others. We work to improve whatever standard they offer us. But we don’t apply the same logic to speech. There will always be some who say more, do more, have more to offer. And we can scaffold tasks to try to get more out of the process for those with less enthusiasm.

  1. Allocating roles. In effective groups, people tend to take on different roles and tasks. From note taker and summariser to ideas generator to problem identifier to solution thinker, you can invent roles that give each child a clear focus on their contribution to a shared outcome.
  2. Using Kagan Structures. Spencer Kagan’s collaborative learning structures are a really effective way of managing group work. His optimal group size is 4 and he insists on mixed ability groups. One sample structure would be “Round Robin” – the teacher introduces a topic – each group member responds quickly and in turn. The group then examine the responses and build from it. “Pair and share” is a quick paired conversation which is then shared with the wider group. You can add to this Pair, square and share – where children talk in twos – share their outcomes to another pair and assimilate and summarise the thoughts of both pairs to create a group response. There are dozens and dozens of other simple structures and tasks available online and all are suitable for all age groups. They’re so simple it’s almost embarrassing.
  3. Take a look at Voice21Oracy’s Toolkit here –  if offers a range of vocal and group strategies and activities to give group work genuine purpose with real outcomes.
  4. Beef the content up: Too many group work tasks are devoid of challenge.  Make the task demanding, steep it in an interesting question or dilemma, furnish the group with the key information they need, but leave gaps. Get them to think about multiple perspectives and points of view. As they get confident, throw in curve balls – new information, problems, difficulties that make them reconsider their current position. Keep them on their toes.
  5. Insist on rules: Everyone contributes. They speak in full, developed sentences. They use formal language (if appropriate). They are taught and practice effective language – “I predict…” “I concur…” “The evidence suggests that…” ” One possible solution may be…” Language that will also help them in written tasks.
  6. Openly play devil’s advocate: make it part of the culture of your classroom that you will adopt the ‘devil position’ in some group tasks and challenge them – offer alternative points of view (even if they are not your own) – challenge them to add more information, probe for deeper thinking.
  7. Mix them up. One barrier to group work is children feeling exposed. This is worse if they are only used to working with the same people all the time. Change groups regularly. Do it randomly sometimes too – sit in height order, birthday order, boy/girl etc. Make it look random when it’s not and distract them, by setting up tables with groups on them – fruit, birds, mammals, fish etc… then give each child a card. They go to the table that corresponds with their card – Cod, Apple, Bear, Finch and are focused less on friends than finding their place. The more people they work with, the less threatened they will feel by speaking out.

We should no more give up on group work than reading. Just because this skill doesn’t appear on a test (yet), it’s not something to be forgotten. Arm yourself with knowledge. Practice. And practice some more. Don’t ever use it as a time filling, empty activity – if you see it this way, they will. Trust in process. Trust in children. One group work task I set up ended up raising thousands for refugees. You never know what it might go.


6 thoughts on “Making Group Work Work.

  1. Debra is absolutely right to emphasise the importance of group work and to draw attention to the confirmation of its effectiveness by EEF. This EEF conclusion is important as it recognises that the successful approaches are not based on the rote learning of factual content but on stimulating and supporting the development of general 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. EEF also supported ‘Thinking, Doing, Talking Science’. 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/pupil and pupil/teacher talk. These issues are discussed here

    In my book and on my website, I write at length about the potential of various approaches to the development of general cognitive ability. I was a science teacher, so the examples I give are from the context of science teaching. In this excellent post Debra makes essentially the same points from her expertise in the teaching of humanities. She is also right that the powerful potential of group work will not be realised unless it is done effectively and I commend her recommendations in this regard.

    In terms of the facilitation of deep learning, curiosity is the essential fundamental cognitive urge. I characterise curiosity-driven ‘deep learning’ as that which builds ascending levels of cognitive sophistication (Piagetian plastic intelligence) as distinct from the ‘training’ that can be achieved through passive study, instruction and memorisation on the behaviourist learning model and discuss this here.

    Vygotsky took the view that just as language learning is a social process for which talking and conversation are fundamental necessities, the same is true of all deep learning. Here are some of his thoughts.

    “The true direction of the development of thinking is not from the individual to the social, but from the social to the individual.

    By giving our students practice in talking with others, we give them frames for thinking on their own.

    Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.

    Through others we become ourselves.

    What children can do with the assistance of others might be in some sense even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone.

    The child begins to perceive the world not only through his [or her] eyes but also through his [or her] speech.

    Human learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.

    … People with great passions, people who accomplish great deeds, people who possess strong feelings, even people with great minds and a strong personality, rarely come out of good little boys and girls.”

    Finally, whole school culture can play an important part in supporting the individual social and communication skills needed by pupils and their teachers. I write about this here.

  2. Thank you for this blog article. I hope to weave some of your points into any lectures on ‘talk for learning’. I will reference it, too. It reconfirmed the importance of structuring the learning with high expectations.

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