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Group-Work

August 3, 2008

It is always suggested that it would be a good idea if students took part in some activities during a lesson in pairs or groups. Obviously this is often unavoidable in drama and PE (assuming you count a sports team as “a group”). The reasons given are usually something along the lines of claiming that it teaches them important social skills such as cooperation, or that you learn better in a group due to being able to talk with your peers.

Of course, this is nonsense. If you want to learn how to cooperate effectively with others, then the last place you’d start is in a group of teenagers being made to do school work. This is like saying the best way to learn how to make pork sausages is by being imprisoned in a pig farm with a half-dozen rabbis. Putting together people who are neither experienced at doing something, or particularly inclined to want to do it, is not how you learn to do that something. Of course, it would be useful for a surly teenager to practice teamwork skills. Letting him or her join a team of adults who already know how to work in a team would be a great educational experience. Forcing them into a group of other surly teenagers and letting them fight it out amongst themselves over who is to blame for getting nothing done is less constructive.

The first problem is even getting them into groups. Many students will not sit near each other or talk to each other. The second problem is to get them to agree to do the task at hand. Getting them to work can be tricky at the best of times, but by putting them together you have ensured that if you are going to punish them for not working then you’d have to punish all of them equally. It’s a pretty safe bet that no teacher will risk antagonising the remaining good kids in that way, not least because it would be hard to justify that to parents. This is made worse by those who feel that they should refuse to work in protest at being in a group with somebody they don’t like. Finally, even if it is accepted that the group will carry out the work, it will not be accepted that they should all contribute. Teenagers are naturally hierarchical. It will be assumed that the dominant child should do everything if the activity looks enjoyable, or nothing if it looks like hard work. If the task involves writing you can see this in action. If Her Ladyship enjoys writing she grabs the pen. If His Lordship doesn’t enjoy it, he will grab it anyway, only to pass it to one of the serfs. Whichever way round it is, only one child will do most of the work. Far from teaching them how to cooperate, all that’s happened is that they’ve had yet another chance to develop their dysfunctional patterns of non-cooperation.

Now we may consider the more specific claim that they might learn more from this farce. It is a bit of a no-brainer that studying is generally done more effectively individually, but with significant exceptions. The suggestion that they might learn in groups or pairs is entirely based on the idea that discussion between children is inherently educational. Now, it is impossible to deny that discussing how to answer a question with somebody is often helpful. The strange idea here is that discussing it with somebody who knows roughly as little as you do, is going to be more educational than discussing it with the graduate who has been explaining for years, and is employed to explain it to you. This is, of course, another one of those dumbing down ideas that is based on the fantasy that children have nothing to learn from experts. Naturally, discussing something with an idiot is mainly a way of sharing misconceptions and mistakes. It is the exact opposite of how we learn best, which is from authoritative sources. This is, of course, why teachers spend half their lives telling kids not to talk, not to cooperate, and not to pay attention to each others’ answers. It is also why teachers, even after all these years of “knit-your-own-yoghurt” methods are still called “teachers” and not “facilitators” or “learning consultants”.

However, even by making this argument I am naively assuming that if you put children together in a group and tell them to talk about something, they will. Why on earth would they do that? No matter what your subject, no matter how exciting, there are always going to be a hundred and one other things that are more interesting to talk about. With a large class, and normal secondary school age children, no teacher can control the direction of seven or eight simultaneous conversations. Teachers have a job on their hands at the best of times encouraging students to work rather than chat, it becomes impossible to do when the work itself involves chatting. Like so many other fashionable educational ideas, group-work is based on the belief that every child is basically the sort of willing, obedient individual our school system so effectively marginalises when they do exist, rather than the uncooperative chav that they are, in practice, forced to become in order to survive.

As ever in teaching, these sorts of patterns of behaviour aren’t just instinctive, they will have been learned over many years of being made to work in groups by idiot teachers, who didn’t really care about learning, trying and failing to get some group-work done. They will have already learnt that group-work is effectively an extension of breaktime, in which you get to chat as much as you like and the teacher occasionally comes round and asks why nothing has been done (but not too often because none of the other groups will have done anything either, and the teacher will have spent five minutes trying to calm down the group whose members were trying to kill each other or the child that had a tantrum the moment they discovered who they would be working with). No teacher achieves anything much in group-work outside those areas mentioned earlier where they have had to get used to cooperating, like in drama or playing team sports. Even then you can see problems developing: kids will fight over who is to be in their group, and only experience enables the teachers of those subjects to manage the situation. Most (but not all) teachers dread getting a cover in those subjects.

As for every other subject, the pressure is always there to do get children to work in groups or pairs, for reasons of variety as much as anything else. As a conscientious professional who is full of confidence in anything that’s recommended by people who don’t even teach anymore, I incorporate some kind of group-work into all of my lessons. Those parts of the lesson where they have to sit in silence and listen to me, I consider to be a form of group-work. What’s particularly good about this type of group-work it is that they don’t even have to sit with their groups, or know who else is in their group, in order to do it. Another possibility is simply to ensure that all of your group-work is done in groups of one.

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26 comments

  1. [...] got a real laugh out of this post from Scenes From The Battleground. Go over and read it – see if it doesn’t make you grin. Here are some highlights: If you want [...]


  2. Spot on Andrew, as highlighted by the free for all chaos that was “enterprise day”; the ‘good’ kids doing the stuff noone else wants to do, the dominant kids doing the fun stuff and lots of chat about big brother (as well as the odd hissy fit).


  3. An amazing depressing description of how groupwork can go wrong. In my experience there are environments and student cultures in which group work is a valuable part of consolidation of learned knowledge, but this has two prerequesites:

    1) Groups consist of students who have some commitment to achievement/ learning – this may mean post compulsory education only in some situations

    2) The task is clearly defined, roles are clearly defined and the the deadlines for sections of the task are defined, and the task is of understood value to the students taking part.

    If one of these conditions is not met, the situation can descend into the pointless anarchy that you describe. In fact, as a Teacher of Science, I have heard of and seen worse in experiment/ practical lessons with events such as:

    *Pipettes in bunsen tubes to create a stream of pressurised gas which can form a relatively effective flame thrower
    *Multiple power supply packs wired together to form a significant voltage or current supply to allow students to weld lab equipment together
    *Biology dissections where the aerodynamic properties of the subject are demonstrated, devolving into a dystopian food fight

    Fortunately, I was called in to deal with these rather than have them happen in my classes, but I will raise your groupwork session disaster tales with science experiment catastrophies, and wait to here your response…


  4. I think OA’s description of group work is good, as an NQT and having done some supply i know that group work can easily be wrecked by a class. Like Aus andrew i’m a science teacher and know that practicals can be seen as a way of terning lesson time into social time.

    I had a lesson with one year 11 group, not even practical mind, in which some lads thought it was funny to set fire to the back end of the paper airplane one of them had just made and throw it. I looked up from helping a pupil to see the smoldering projectile collide with the back of another pupils head. Given the stupidity i couldn’t blame her for the language she used at the offending boys. End result, hours detention with the HoD.


    • Yes, OK. If you’re a supply teacher then you should never ever attempt a group work activity. It will go to shit very rapidly.

      Effective behaviour management must come first and I suggest that preventing students setting fire to stuff might be a step in the right direction. If the Yr 11 lesson you describe above was a supply lesson then the school had no right to put you in a situation where students had the means to set fire to airplanes.


  5. Brilliant!


  6. I love the humor. I have actually had students learn something in group work, but like everything else one size does not fit all.


  7. Do you know what I think is wrong with your blog, oldandrew? You know by now that having taught in one of the nationally bottom-ten inner-city comps for many years (as well as very much nicer schools) I recognise with startling clarity everything you describe in your blog as factually accurate and devoid of emotional exaggeration. What’s wrong is that you sound depressed, despairing and frustrated by it all to the point where you are very near to washing your hands of the whole thing. As I did :)

    I think many teachers who recognise similar situations in their own careers resent or fear your bitter despair. It makes them sound as if they are whistling in the dark, pissing in the rain. Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Wasting their time. Fooling no-one but themselves that anything they do will “make a difference” and affirm their identity.


  8. I’m not despairing. The point of all this is to change it. The problem we have in schools is the belief that this is all there can be so we’d better put a brave face on it. The point of the blog is to point out that far from being inevitable this is an absurdity, that to get to where we are has taken a lot of people, over a lot of years being very, very stupid. I want to help people believe in change, and the biggest obstacle to change is in my view the denial of the current reality.


    • If the point of the post was indeed to point out that there alternatives to group then fair enough. Except it wasn’t, was it? The point of the post was to denounce group work as a bit silly.

      Effective group work won’t just happen. If you pitch up to a lesson and say, right chaps, guess what we’re doing today, then guess what? It won’t work.

      If however, you invest sometime in training the surly teenagers how to do it properly and well and are clear in your expectations that everyone fulfils clear roles and responsibilities then they’ll do it. They really will. If you go the extra mile and set up activities which necessitate all to take part in order for them to be successful (home/expert groups for instance) then it’s even more likely to work. I don’t care what people say about the ‘behaviour crisis in education’, I can make, and have made, this work very effectively.

      The one point you make which gives me pause for thought is this: “The strange idea here is that discussing it with somebody who knows roughly as little as you do, is going to be more educational than discussing it with the graduate who has been explaining for years, and is employed to explain it to you.” Yes, I do know more than my students and yes, I can just give them the ‘right answer” and if life, or even exams, where just about knowing the right answer then this might be worth doing. Sadly, that’s not the case. Whether you think they’re capable of it or not, they need to learn to think for themselves. And if they get it wrong? No matter. Try again. Fail Again. Fail better.


      • Well there you go. Your defence of groupwork suggests two things

        a) We have to train them to do it in time that could be spent teaching them.

        b) We have to change the purpose of education to something meaningless like “learning to think for themselves” rather than giving them the right answer.

        Argument a) suggests it is ineffective, and that is my experience. It is not that it is impossible to train kids to work in groups in lessons. Its just more effort to do that than to actually teach them.

        Argument b) is a classic argument for dumbing-down, and one that looks particularly weak in this context. “Thinking for yourself”, if it means anything (which I doubt) is the exact opposite of talking in a group.


        • So you’re saying that anything which requires effort is not worth trying? Surely not. My group skills are so silky smooth that I can train a class very quickly and efficiently. And what does ‘actually teaching them’ mean? Talking at them?

          I teach English which requires students to think for themselves. There are no right answers. They need experience of trying bad ideas and developing better ideas. Otherwise they’ll. Badly.

          Maybe in subjects which are less skills based there is some point to the transmission of correct answers and the kids remembering them. Maybe this works in maths or science? I have no idea but being able to think for myself has come in handy on a number of occasions and it seems a handy life skill which is worth passing on.

          Cheers


          • I’m saying effort should go where it does most good, i.e. into teaching, which does mean letting them know what they don’t know. Usually this is done by talking, but human beings do have other means of communication, they just tend to be slower.

            As for the ridiculous idea that there are subjects with “no right answers”. If there are no right answers then there is nothing to learn, so, of course, it doesn’t matter what they do in lessons.

            My point about “thinking for yourself” is not that it is a bad thing, but that it is meaningless jargon. All thinking is “for yourself”. We should be teaching them to think soundly, from a basis of secure knowledge and familiarity and fluency with the relevant ideas, and that is best achieved by teaching.

            Finally, I am not sure how English is any more skills-based than maths or science. All academic disciplines involve certain skills, even remembering things is a skill, however, our skills are supported by our knowledge and the distinction between being taught and revising is precisely the acquisition of new knowledge.


          • I’m not going to argue about whether one subject area is any more skills based than another: I just don’t know.

            Calling my idea that there are no right answers in English ‘ridiculous’ is a bit of an ad hominem argument. Why is it ridiculous? Year on year examiners report that misguided teacher who merely download the ‘answers’ into their students’ brains do them a disservice and as a result, they tend to perform poorly. We are exhorted to encourage independence of thought an while, yes, this does require a body of knowledge, it certainly does not means that there are any right answers.

            Fair enough, I can accept that ‘thinking for yourself’ is a tautology. Am happy ti refer to it simply as ‘thinking’ from henceforth on.

            Finally, yes, talking is a remarkably effective way of teaching, but if the students aren’t learning then you’re just talking.


          • The idea that there are no right answers is ridiculous. (That’s not an ad hominem, it’s the idea that’s ridiculous not a person). I have told you why it’s ridiculous, there is no point learning if an answer or behaviour informed by that learning is not preferred to one that isn’t.

            I accept there is a problem with rote-learning before exams, (although I think it is more of a problem where classes are targetting lower grades) but that is a question about understanding and fluency of thought, not independence of thought. In fact, the concepts around “autonomy” are the next thing I plan to blog about if nothing else comes up first. I do think that the concepts are close to meaningless in the educational context.

            Not really sure about your last point. Obviously, one needs to talk in a way that will cause kids to learn. That goes without saying.


  9. It isn’t the reality for lots of people though. At Leafy Lane Grammar, the teachers used to presume I made up Tales From The Crypt for the purpose of entertaining them. Just on the subject of group work, I’ve taught in schools where group work is a guaranteed success. They’re not teaching each other: they’re applying the skills I have already taught them to work through a task. They are in school: they expect to work and their work ethic and self-esteem drive them forward. Anecdotes of group work gone seriously pear-shaped only lead them to cast nasturtiums on the classroom management of the teacher or failure to apply a sanction that bites: a phone call home or a detention!

    Compare that with the carefully-planned, time-consumingly-resourced and earnest efforts of teachers at Hell High, who have been told they will do practicals/group work in x% of their lessons, and invariably watch that time and effort go to shit. They KNOW what the problem is but more importantly they know WHOSE the problem is: theirs. Until is becomes the problem of someone who has the power to change things, that’s exactly where it will stay.


  10. Well my point is that we have to push those with the power to change things, and we have to take some of that power for ourselves. We also need to raise our voices when people waste our time with that “the teacher must be at fault” stuff that people always come up with when they want to avoid the truth of what’s happening.

    As long as even one teacher realises “I am not alone” and decides to express their opinion publicly then my blog will have done some good. I also want to encourage people committed to change to start rising up the ranks (rather than giving up before they are 30) and running schools. Box of chocolates to the first person who uses one of my blog posts in INSET training (but you will have to prove it).


  11. [...] post is a humorous account of the pointlessness of problems inherent with trying to make students do groups work. He makes a [...]


  12. “As long as even one teacher realises “I am not alone” … then my blog will have done some good.”
    Gawd bless you, Sir.

    Another thought on the subject is that the sort of person who is likely to take enough of an interest in their kids’ education to have got them into a decent school, may well presume that the status quo at the school their kids attend is general, with hellholes being few and extreme cases. The parents of kids at hellholes, although they might not like what they’ve got, are nonetheless stuck with it and often don’t feel empowered enough to complain.


  13. You aren’t depressed. You just speak with passion. And that’s because you love what you do. I wish people could see the difference.


  14. I often agree with Lily but I must say I don’t find the tone of the blog is depressed.

    The best thing about the TES website for most of my career and for this website for however long it has been going is it does make me feel like I’m not alone and that gives me strength to keep going and also to not blame myself for all the craziness.

    I ran a website for pgce students for a couple of years just because I thought I’d get to them before the loonies in the teacher training system did and show them there was an alternative way of looking at things before they were brain washed, but it was too much work and I was burning myself out so I gave it up.


  15. Yep, spot on. We have “think, pair, share” shoved down our throats with alarming regularity. My subject has a lot of scope for group/pair work, but as you say, in the sort of schools we’re in, the kids see it as an extension of social time.


  16. [...] by all sorts of folk, some of whom are very articulate and thoughtful like the wonderfully caustic Old Andrew. He says that students’ inability to work in groups will have been learned over many years of [...]


  17. THANK YOU for telling it like it is.

    Increasingly, SLT enforce grouped desk layouts in classrooms, and insist that group work is used in every lesson.

    Yet, if we take it as a given that children have different ‘learning styles’, surely it’s safe to assume that approximately 50% work and learn better individually, as opposed to in a group? (Certainly worked for me…)

    Surely its time for a backlash against the endless pursuit of group work?


  18. How relieved I was to read your post as it expresses clearly what I feel about group work. I work in an inner city school in Belfast and we are constantly told in courses and by the inspectorate that children must discuss in groups or pairs. What usually happens is that the strongest take control, the whingers whinge and the weakest stay quiet and contribute nothing. Another favoured teaching method is KWL if you know it (affectionately known as wkd). We are supposed to find out what the children KNOW as the first step. Recent KWL on Victoriansrevealed the class knew absolutely nothing which is a fair enough reaction I thought, as I hadn’t taught anything yet. Give me strength!


  19. […] A. (2008) Group work. Available from: http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2008/08/03/group-work/ (accessed […]



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