Group work can be great

I started writing this post after reading Tom Bennett’s 2015 mostly sceptical article Group Work for the Good that he recently linked to on Twitter.  I tweeted back to him that I had only the week before decided that group work would be my way forward in raising attainment with a Year 3 class that I teach every week.  (His reply? – ‘Careful now ;)’!)

Bennett’s justifiable reservations notwithstanding, I’ve found group work to be an effective teaching tool, specifically in raising attainment by changing learning behaviour.

The class in question is not my class but I’ve taught them every week since January this year.  In that time, the same children have behaved more or less every week in the same way, leading to the same failure to achieve the outcome of the lesson.

I won’t be talking about behaviour management at a class or school level; nor how SEND provision, including parental engagement, might help these children’s attainment.  Though in real life it is false to make this separation, this post will focus only on the idea of using group work to achieve successful outcomes for the whole class.

My experience

I should start, as Bennett did, by talking about experience as a factor in using group work.  I’ve been teaching Key Stages 1 and 2 for about 15 years, much of it doing interventions – with EAL pupils and with low, medium and high attainers.  I was Literacy Co-ordinator for five years.  I’ve been a supply teacher and at the moment I’m a PPA teacher.  I’ve done team teaching and whole class teaching using a variety of methods, including ‘fully guided instruction’ as Bennett puts it, and group work.  Group work is certainly not the only answer to low attainment.  Whatever the context or approach, I’m looking for a) task completion to b) a standard that indicates attainment, leading to c) progress.

And that’s what I’m not seeing from the children I’ve mentioned, who make up about a quarter of the class.  I’m getting some of a) but without b), but mostly neither a) nor b), which clearly leads to a dearth of c).

My concern is not just for the lack of progress in this numerically-significant group of children.  It’s the knock-on for the rest of the class: the messing around, chatting, irritability and distress that causes stress and lowers attainment for everyone.

That’s not to say that some of those whose attainment is fine are models of good learning behaviour. There will always be children who can mess around, chat, get bad-tempered or cry and still manage to achieve a), b) & c).  But they could probably achieve more with improved learning behaviour, just as much as their classmates attaining at a lower level could.

So, how?

Below are the strategies I built into planning to pre-empt the drawbacks that Bennett identifies in his article, namely unequal participation because some children are coasting or not doing anything.

  • Grouping

I started by grouping the children not just by their usual attainment but by the learning behaviours that I’ve observed over the last 10 months.

This is where it gets quite unscientific.  There are seven groups of four, as follows:

Group 1: These children always listen attentively during whole class teaching, have good recall and good working memories, can manage complex tasks, retaining a sequence of instructions from beginning to end, co-operate, don’t complain, manage their problems – personal and social – appropriately, always complete their tasks to the desired standard.

Group 2: These children’s attainment is always good, but this is in spite of often chatting and messing around, arguing, getting upset with other children and complaining – all learning behaviour that means their attainment is very likely not as good as it should be, and which affects other children too.

Group 3: This is a group of children with low self-esteem as learners.  In one case it is catastrophic, with frequent outbursts of anger and crying.  There is active avoidance in every lesson – asking to get water, to go to the toilet, complaints about headaches etc.,  as well of off-task behaviour – chatting, day-dreaming, simply doing nothing.  Co-operation is often poor because the children are not sure that they are esteemed or even liked, and attainment is consistently low.

Group 4: This group of children works really slowly.  Most of them lack confidence.  Most of them have poor attention during whole class teaching.  For one of them there is usually an episode of crying which ends up with an inability to complete tasks unless an adult intervenes and supports.

Group 5: The attainment of the members of this group of children is usually okay.  They’re fidgety, they call out and chat, they’re noisy when they work, one of them tends to get really upset about some aspect of sharing or fairness, but they do usually get there with a firm hand.

Group 6: The members of this group usually don’t complete the task, plus there are usually conceptual errors in the work that they do produce.  They’re diligent but don’t follow whole-class input and/or don’t retain it between the teaching and the task.

Group 7: This group are similar to group 6 but, in the case of three out of the four children, without the diligence.  They probably have difficulties with processing and retaining information.  They often get distracted by things outside of learning – i.e. what other children are doing – and have difficulty co-operating.

The idea of grouping by learning behaviour is that children are not compensating for each other’s weaknesses.  They can see what is it that impedes their own learning in the behaviour of the other children in the group.  If the teacher is explicit, as I am, about what those learning behaviours are, they can support each other in overcoming them. This brings me on to the next strategy.

  • Teacher’s role

The teacher’s role here is to comment on learning behaviours rather than task.  The teacher reflects back to children the learning behaviours as problems that need to be solved.  I describe behaviours repetitively and over-praise any shift away from them.  Children can ask the teacher questions related to subject knowledge and the task, but are encouraged to seek solutions from each other rather than from the teacher.  I will allow more leeway with children that have difficulties managing cognitive load, for example by repeating key words, putting key words into sentences for them to repeat etc.

For this, cognitive load needs to be carefully managed, which leads to the next point.

  • Modelling the outcome

In this week’s lesson, each group’s task was to produce a poster.  The poster had three sections: the first involved a map, the second a diagram and the third a piece of writing – a high cognitive load.  I made a poster with these three sections so that the children knew what the outcome should look like and contain.  I went over the content and skills for each section, relating it to learning from previous lessons as well as new learning,   I turned the poster over after introducing it so that children could not just copy it, but allowed groups that needed to to look at it again if they asked.  I made explicit which parts of the poster were based on previous knowledge and which required application of knowledge taught in that lesson – the next point.

  • Layering knowledge and skills

I wouldn’t use group work when teaching only new material.  If children are able to apply knowledge they already have, each child should be able to contribute something. The knowledge that children had to apply was layered as follows:

  • Previously taught and revisited over several lessons, so fairly embedded: in this case, five countries, their names, their place on the world map and their continents
  • Recently-taught, still needing to be revisited: tectonic plates – what they are in terms of the structure of the Earth
  • New, taught for the first time in that lesson: the risk of earthquakes in different parts of the world (information to be read from a map showing this) and how earthquakes happen in relation to the different types of plate movement (information to be gleaned from a video).

Children had to make a contribution in all of these areas of knowledge.  This was ensured by the next strategy.

  • Rotation of roles

The poster was planned to have three sections so that each child could spend an allocated amount of time (in this case, ten minutes) on each one.  Children could check information or ideas with other members of the group, but as long as the ten minutes lasted it was their responsibility to work on one section.  The fourth role was ‘observer’, the child who observed learning behaviours while the other children worked on the poster.  Whenever children made a written or drawn contribution to the poster, they had to write their name against it, making shirking visible.

  • Immediate feedback

Bennett finds group assessment unfair.  But if feedback is about the learning behaviour that every member of the group demonstrates then it can be useful for the individual members of the group.  With something as large and visual as a poster, it is possible to bring the class back together as a whole and make comments about each poster in terms of how much of the task has been achieved by each group.  This has the added benefit of making task completion a group responsibility, with shortcomings being shared between members of the group, rather than felt on an individual level, which for some children has already become an ingrained and difficult part of the learning experience.

I made a start on this this week. I was able to deliver the lesson so that there was a play time separating ‘how to do this poster’ and ‘the video containing the new information you need to complete this poster’, which was important considering the high cognitive load.  Outcomes in the next post….




Author: writing1to6

Ex-Literacy Lead, Ex-EAL teacher, Ex-Writing Intervention teacher, currently PPA-teacher. Picture book nerd.