Group-WorkAugust 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.