Group work

We’re encouraged, in our lessons, to get our pupils to work in groups (well, I think we are, unless things have changed again while I wasn’t looking!)   There’s generally a presumption that pupils will enjoy it, and develop all sorts of skills – being able to lead, act as a team member, cooperate, discuss…. you name it!  Is this true, though?

What started me thinking about this a bit more was in fact my experience as a student, rather than a teacher. The Open University is keen to encourage its students to work collaboratively on various things, either face to face at the (sadly largely disappeared) residential schools, or online.   It is, I think, safe to say that this is really not popular in general. Whilst many who’ve gone on residential schools (including me – I’ve done six) have a great time and are happy to work with others in that setting, there are quite a number of other students who have done their damnedest to avoid residentials, sometimes even changing their degree course to do so.  As for the online collaborative work – I think I’ve met maybe one student who was positive about it, but the overwhelming majority hate it, and again, may even change their study choices to avoid it.  So can I learn anything from this about how I run group work in my classroom?

Why do OU students hate it? The commonest reason cited is people who don’t do their fair share, but come along and share the credit. That’s easier to put right in a classroom, but it still happens if any of the group work is to take place outside lesson time.

Another one is your marks being dependent on others; this is a concern for those at the top end particularly, as whilst marks for collaborative work tend to be above the overall average, they are unlikely to reach the very high scores the best students will get. Well, even though I don’t tend to be giving formal marks for collaborative activities in the classroom, I can see the problem if the top students often feel the group achievement is compromised by the weakest members.

Then there’s the whole “group dynamic” thing. Undoubtedly it’s good for us to learn to work with a wide range of people. But it isn’t something that’s necessarily easy, and if adults find it tough, children certainly will do.  It isn’t just about “playing nicely” either – even if everyone makes an effort to be polite, to listen to each other, to discuss sensibly and to be positive, some people just do find each other irritating, and whilst working together can reduce that, it can also exacerbate it, through no fault of either party.

The whole idea of working on some things as a group can be problematic too.   This is one of my biggest personal issues. If I am given a theoretical problem in maths, physics or chemistry to work on, I do it best by thinking it through and trying things out myself – not with other people.  I am also a naturally fast worker (I am not claiming that as a virtue, it’s just a fact) and so it’s not uncommon for me to have finished the whole thing while someone else has just drawn the diagram and is writing the first line.  If my doing this is tolerated, then I am more than happy to help those who are less fast and confident …. but the idea of artificially working on it “together” whereby I pretend not to know where to go next so we can work on it ” as a group” is absolutely anathema – it is artificial and patronising.  Of course some people do work best on such problems by discussing them – that’s great – just I don’t! And I’m not alone – I’ve seen kids I teach who are exactly the same.  As an adult, I can, if necessary, pretend, but I am not sure I should be expecting kids to.

So what does work? Probably my best personal experience was working with someone who had complementary skills to me – she was an excellent practical chemist, whilst I am exceptionally ham-fisted but am a good theorist.  But another thing that made our partnership work (over multiple residential schools) was that (to quote her) “we are both quite bossy” and felt able to say what we thought, rather than skirt round things.  That meant that, for example, she could say to me that it was better if she did a particularly delicate practical operation whilst I analysed the spectra. The other factor was that we were on the sort of terms where we could occasionally get irritated by each other, but still have a laugh over a drink at the end of the day, so annoyances had little chance to build up.

That also highlights another issue – the “bossy one”. Now I’m not really best placed to comment on that as a student, because…. to be honest….. it’s usually me.  But I do know that I actually prefer to work with people who will give their opinion and thoughts too, and tell me I’m wrong. Sometimes, because I’m a bit loud and confident, they may not feel able to  – so, in those circumstances, if I don’t think to moderate my behaviour on my own (which hopefully I do, but I may forget), then someone probably needs to have a quiet word with me, or I need to work with similarly loud, confident people!

So, what am I going to bear in mind for groupwork in class?

  • Don’t always spread the highest achievers around the groups – let them work together sometimes (this also benefits the less high achievers, who get more chance to take the lead)
  • Don’t expect everything to be done “as a group” – some individual working is fine
  • Allow some “specialisation” within the group provided all can achieve the key learning objectives
  • Be aware of “freeloaders” and do something about them
  • Expecting people to work with those they find “difficult” for a short period is one thing, but don’t force them together for long periods of time
  • Be aware of the dynamic between confident and less confident people (which is not always the same as able and less able)
  • Don’t automatically assume kids shouldn’t work with their friends. Of course, keeping an eye out for too much off-topic chat is needed, but a good personal relationship can help, rather than hinder, the academic work.
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5 Responses to Group work

  1. sarah evans says:

    I think this is very thought provoking and helpful. Another distinction that I would make is between those who are naturally extrovert – which isn’t necessarily the same as confident – and normally relish working with others and those who are introvert, who basically don’t. There is interesting work on open plan offices which shows introverts find them crippling intellectually while extroverts find them creatively stimulating. Some of the same issues perhaps?

    • teacherposts says:

      That’s a very good point, Sarah. (Indeed, I think I’d probably put myself in the “confident but not extrovert” category). How far are we justified in making people work against their natural tendencies, I wonder?

  2. Jane Stevens says:

    I have to say I agree with your points – especially about putting the high flyers together at times. We do a lot of group work (I teach academic music) and often try to socially manipulate the groups to put decent and less confident musicians together – this often leads to no-one really achieving much; the better ones get frustrated and the less able sit back and let others take the lead. Leaving them to their own choice of groups or planning differentiated groups (with little differentiation within the groups themselves) often gives very positive results.

  3. teacherposts says:

    For any OU folk reading, this blog entry has sparked a discussion about group work here:-

  4. teacherposts says:

    Just to say that the above link doesn’t work any more – the forum discussion has obviously timed out

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