Group Work is Great!

According to Michael Gove‘s speech last week, group work is “in practice, children chatting to each other”. And from the tone of his speech he makes it clear that this is something to be avoided at all costs. (Because of course there is no way that children could learn anything from anyone unless they are an ‘expert teacher imparting knowledge’). Personally, I find this bizarre. It is as though we inhabit parallel universes.

Because group work is a whole lot more complicated, and complex, than the throwaway comment “children chatting to each other” could ever encapsulate. Yes, it’s hard to do well, and very hard to do brilliantly, but that’s no excuse for not trying. Because otherwise you are left with only two options for your teaching: the teacher instructs the students, or the students work individually. Everything else (even a whole class debate or discussion) is, in essence, a form of ‘group work’.

That being the case, what can we hope or expect children, and indeed adults, to learn from group work?

* How to share.

* How to take turns.

* How to focus.

* How to listen to other people’s ideas, and build on them with ideas of your own.

* How to create something by working in partnership with other people.

* How to solve problems by working in partnership with other people.

* That sometimes it’s good to talk, but that equally you must learn to listen as well.

* How to ‘direct’ a group of people, and the kind of situations in which this might be valuable or necessary.

* How to be ‘directed’ by someone else, as a member of a group, following instructions and doing as you are asked.

* How to negotiate your role within a group of other people.

* How to work as a member of a team, each taking on equitable roles within that team. (This is the hardest kind of group work of all for a teacher to manage – even adults find it hard. I wonder if this is where people get the idea that group work is a recipe for chaotic chatter.)

* How to take on a specific role within a group (perhaps decided by a teacher, one you choose yourself or one that is a challenge for you).

* That different people have different viewpoints, perspectives and opinions.

* That it is possible to listen to other people’s views, and in so doing to change or adapt your own perspective.

* That it is possible to listen to other people’s views, and in so doing strengthen your belief in your own perspective.

* That people are all different – different views, different abilities, different talents, different backgrounds.

* That we all have something to offer, and that it is important to be gentle, kind and supportive of the talents and views of others.

* That working with others can be a great way to motivate yourself and those within your group.

* That we all have the right for our voices and opinions to be heard.

* How to have fun, and be relaxed, while learning.

* That the teacher is not always right, and that questioning what an ‘authority’ tells you is not always wrong.

I’m going to stop there, because I’ve run out of ideas, and I’m working on my own, so I’ve got no one else to turn to. Now of course if I was working in a group 🙂 …….

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17 Responses to Group Work is Great!

  1. A list that clearly shows the many reasons why, perhaps, the ‘Great’ Gove struggles with the concept of group working. With phrases like “listen to other people’s views; listen well; that people are different;” all being things he finds hard to do with the professionals that he castigates on a daily basis this is another sure sign that his ideal for education can only be wrong for the future – unless we wish to replicate many more like him!


  2. Great post.
    Evidently, Mr Gove is opposed to such excellent ideas as you propose because he clearly lacks the intellectual or emotional maturity, or even the social skills to operate in a group. He believes that he is the only authority on a subject, that his opinions and ideas are inherently the right ones; that there is no room for debate or discussion (least of all with anyone who might actually have knowledge, skill or experience of the matter in question) and that anyone who does disagree with him must be silenced or punished.
    I would love to be a fly on the wall in one of his departmental briefings! Surely, even Gove must take part in some form of group work?
    That someone with such ignorant views, bordering on the fascist, has any sort of power or influence on the education of our precious children is a disgrace and a danger. Discuss!


  3. Jill Berry says:

    Absolutely with you on this, Sue. I agree that there are dangers with groupwork and to do it really well is challenging – I understand the risk of unproductive chat and inequitable distribution of labour but just think this means we need to plan groupwork carefully and monitor it effectively.

    I know that school is about much more than preparation for the world of work, but thinking about how much time most professions require us to co-operate and collaborate rather than beaver away as individuals would suggest another reason why children need to learn to do this well at school.


  4. bt0558 says:

    Another great post.

    I hadn’t read/listened to Gove’s speech until I found this blogpost and to be honest I think it would have been best if I hadn’t read it at all. It almost made me cry.

    Quite how Gove could square on the one hand the work of Ben Goldacre who is always banging on about RCTs and ResearchED and then go on to talk about views and issues for which there is no support in the literature.

    He quoted a number of teachers in glowing terms (mainly if not all TeachFirsters except for Old Andrew) and maybe not surprisingly they were all bloggers who spin the same yarn as himself.

    He clearly was awestruck over Daisy Christodoulou’s book despite the fact that the only positive reviews that I saw were from other TeachFirsters or custodians of the Echochamber.

    Having talked about “how to use the most rigorous evidence to improve teaching itself” and “Some of the most impressive names in the profession” he wet on about how many hits/followers people had as if this was in some way gave some rigour to their research/practice.

    I personally don’t think the people named express views that lead me to believe that they are exceptional teachers. The idea that being recognised in the honours for work done starting up an academy makes one an exceptional educator is for me laughable. When they include ******** ******** and *********** ************, the best two teachers I ever saw in the honours maybe I will change my mind but I think not as they both left the profession recently due to the poor management and low morale that Govey says only exists in the minds of union officials.

    When education policy and practice is led by misguided and ill informed (but opinionated ) politicains, bloggers and tweeters held in high esteem for the size of their following, TeachFirsters and a textbook that in my reading had very few positive reviews from teachers or non teachers alike I think it is time to admit that there is a problem.

    Above all, that Gove would express such silly generalisations on the merits of groupwork, insulting the good work done by a great many teachers up and down the country every day is really quite sad. When Old Andrew starts to rant about such things one can simply laugh and move on but when the Education Secretary does the same it should really make people stop and think.

    Great post and comments.


  5. bt0558 says:

    ps…I feel that the path of “unproductive chat” is one that should be trodden with great care. Mr Gove and his followers would have pupils manacled to the desks a bit like those little monkeys that are force fed cigarette smoke even now to find out whether smoking is harmful. They see force feeding kids in the same way as the most “efficient” way to educate them. Any second they aren’t taking in facts and knowledge is a second wasted, the old FW Taylor nonsense.

    Sometimes having a chat will improve a learning experience, sometimes a chat will improve motivation and sometimes (to miquote a misquote of Freud) a chat is just a chat. But sometimes you just gotta chat, it;s what makes us human. Most of us anyway.


    • Jill Berry says:

      I also think that whenever we do any training ourselves it helps us to recognise how strong (and normal!) the impulse to ‘chat’ is – even while we’re learning!


  6. suecowley says:

    Thanks to everyone for the comments here. And yes, Jill, doing a lot of training has taught me the merits of being relaxed enough to let people share their thoughts, opinions and feelings. Every lesson to me is just one big group work experiment because I want to work with the specific people in front of me to help them develop. I can’t do that if I don’t find a way to interact with them and to get them to interact with each other.

    I suspect that in the end, for all the divisiveness we hear, this is the way that pretty much all teachers work. Perhaps the answer is to have faith in children, and to find ways to ensure that they want to work hard for and with you. Haven’t we got to try, at the very least?


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  9. manyanaed says:

    Group work can be very limited in value and it does need close and careful managing. Next time you set up a group sit with them, not intervening in any way, but listening to who contributes and what those contributions are. Listen for at least ten minutes. Do nothing to change the way the group works. Interesting to do and quite instructive.


  10. suecowley says:

    Yes, absolutely, which is why I just published a book about how to structure, manage and regulate group work so that the learners stay focused, so that you use it for the right reasons and so that students get the most out of it 🙂 It’s a very highly skilled teaching technique to use well (which is absolutely no excuse not to try to use it and improve the way we use it).

    When I use group work with teachers, I would never set a task that required 10 minutes of them talking with no input or feedback or change. I’m not sure I’d be physically able to stop myself intervening for that long anyway! (Although yes, I’m sure you’re right that it would be interesting and just as adults do, they would most likely drift away from the core task.)


    • Jill Berry says:

      (Though if a group is being observed (children or adults) they are arguably LESS likely to drift off the task because they are aware of being watched, no matter how unobtrusive the observer tries to be. Heisenberg?)

      I accept Chris’s reservations about the effectiveness of group work and agree, Sue, that we need constantly to strive to monitor and improve how we use it, but I’m still a fan – I’ve seen so many adults and students who find it difficult to voice their views before the whole group contribute far more confidently (and who have valuable comment to offer) in a pair/small group.


    • manyanaed says:

      Sue. Thanks for the quick response. Many teachers, particularly in secondary, will leave groups ‘working’ for at least that time. The point is that groups work well when individuals are dependent on the knowledge that others have and are willing to listen to what is said. To attend to the discussion. That is unlikely to happen in many groups that do not contain good learners and where the group has not been set up and has productively worked together for some time. Think of a way to test the learning the group has added to the learning children have already gained and the outcome is likely to be not too great.


  11. suecowley says:

    Thanks the replies. I’d have to take issue with a few points. Firstly, group work is not just about kids with less knowledge getting it off those with more – that assumes the only purpose of group work is to gain knowledge, when it has many other potential reasons for happening (Part 1 of my new book is called ‘Reasons’).

    Secondly, to say that a group has to work together for some time to be effective seems illogical – at some point they’ve *got* to be doing it for the first time haven’t they? If we can’t have enough faith in our learners to potentially let them do something badly at first, then we won’t encourage them to ever become independent of their teacher.

    Finally, just because you think that ‘many teachers will …’ is not a reason to blame the technique. I’m sure quite a few teachers talk too long at their students, but that doesn’t mean teacher talk is not effective does it? Surely it’s all the more reason to learn to do it well.

    I was watching a lesson the other day that began with a long section of teacher talk. Then, as I watched, the teacher suddenly realised it was too much teacher talk, and not enough child talk. The teacher threw in a quick ‘turn to your partner and talk about what you think should happen here’ and the whole pace and energy of the lesson was suddenly revived. It was lovely to watch the impact of group work in action as one of a mixed bag of great teaching techniques.


    • manyanaed says:

      Ok. Let me first correct what I think is a mis-assumption. Groups can only work effectively when they have worked together for a while. How long depends on a number of factors so if we want group work we have to accept poorer performance that after they have worked together for enough time. It takes time and proper practice to become effective in anything. Same with group work. It also means that we should create stable groups and repeatedly use that grouping. The distraction impact of getting to grips as a participant in a new group is high. Cognitive load stuff.

      Pairs is a rather special from of a group and the ability to listen to one other and operate according to the conventions of pair working are easier to accommodate that in a larger group. In fact, I would almost be willing to advocate groups no bigger than groups of two! Children understand working with another far more easily than they understand working with a larger group. Let’s differentiate between pairs and groups. A group is three or more.

      Whatever the activity the intention will be learning so saying a group is for more than gaining knowledge is silly. Whatever they are learning it will be increasing their knowledge. Unless you mean knowledge as being those facts written in books – but that is to misunderstand what we use our brain to do. What in chapter 1 of your book is gained from group working that is not knowledge?

      Sure, because many teachers will is not a reason not to use groups. Never said it was. But using groups is a far more complex activity than many teachers give it credit. They will have poorly and sometimes incorrect assumptions about the value of group work and will not, consequently, set up groups to be effective for learning.


  12. suecowley says:

    Group work can be useful for things like varying the pace of a lesson (so that focused learning takes place), sharing ideas, building independence/collaboration, thinking about different perspectives and many other aspects of what I would term ‘learning’. All of these can contribute to learning taking place but are not necessarily about gaining ‘knowledge’ in a narrow definition of the term. Perhaps that seems ‘silly’ to you but not to me – sorry!

    Paired learning is a simple group structure, but I’d argue that it is a group structure because it is not individual learning. Equally certain whole class activities can be classed as group work. There is something incredibly powerful about a ‘whole class improvisation in role’ in a drama class, when done really well, because it requires the whole class to work together as a single group.

    If you feel that many teachers don’t realise how complex group work is then I would hope that we could give them strategies to understand it more fully and use it as well as possible. Thanks for your comments.


    • manyanaed says:

      So in what ways are you not seeing the things you say group work can be useful for are not increasing a child’s knowledge? By doing the things you suggest they either know new things or are better at things they can do already but at a higher or more secure level.


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