In ‘The Importance of Teaching‘ Michael Gove says: “All too often, we’ve seen an over-emphasis on group work – in practice, children chatting to each other – in the belief that is a more productive way to acquire knowledge than attending to an expert.” Of course he is right, group-work done badly is bad.
I hate being told to ‘join in’. I recoil when I am told to get into groups with colleagues at staff meetings, in-service training days and those soul destroying ‘group bonding’ away days. My natural reaction is one of abject horror. On the unfortunate occasions when it occurs, I try to be funny and cynical, or skeptical and difficult. Sometimes my alpha-maleness tries to lead but inevitably fails as a real alpha male or female takes over, and I shrink to a point of detached cynicism. When it comes to the plenary I am skilled at holding a piece of sugar paper covered in post it notes on which are written heartfelt thoughts on pedagogy which I proceed to read out in a slightly sneering way.
I think group work can be important.
In my book Trivium21c, I argue that we need to develop a common space, where the idea of ‘us’ and ‘we’ takes precedent over the ‘I’ and the ‘me’. Children need to commune, to sing and play together, to argue and debate, to make and to explore. Yet children also need solitude, quiet, and time and space for individual study: in the library, at their desk or even under an oak tree , they need moments in which they can think, reflect, rest, and contemplate. Kids need the We and the Me! This does not need to occur in every subject or every class, and a classroom teacher who offers space for both should only do so if and when it suits their subject, and it is done in a way that means something is gained by their pupils. What follows is how I used to teach children to take part in group work something that is essential in my subject, drama.
How I made group work a focused experience rather than an excuse for kids to just ‘chat to each other’:
I started with groups of ‘one’, technically not a group, but bear with me. The individual, the ‘Me’, began each session still and quiet. From this contemplative moment I would introduce the content: in practical and academic lessons I would want to engage each and every pupil, they had to be subsumed by the ‘content’ of the lesson not by the ease and sociability of the experience. Only once the ‘content’ had engaged every student would I move to the next stage: ‘the pair’. In pair-work they had to build on the content, either through physical means or focused dialogue. For the first term I would never move beyond solo-work and pair-work. If, during pair work, I ever saw that the children were not taking part I would go back to solo work and rebuild. It was only when kids were used to this ritual that I thought about how and when to introduce the group of four, and, depending on the class, this would usually occur in term two or three. In these lessons, I would also build from solo work, then to pair work, to group work and, again, if any group didn’t work I’d go back to solo and build from there. By the end of year 10 all students could work in groups, at the level I demanded, if I built it in such a way.
In year 11, I used the looming prospect of the ‘exam’ to ensure the children stepped up a gear. Again we started with content rich solo work, then pair, then four, but then I would add: eight, sixteen, thirty two (or whatever the number of the whole class was). Each time, if any stage didn’t work, we’d go back to solo and rebuild. Finally, when the whole class could work successfully as one whole group, where all could ‘give and take’, ‘lead and follow’, they were ready to work properly in groups, under their own steam for ten weeks in preparation for their exam.
I took over a year with a class to build the skill of working in groups where all would give of something, where sharing content united their pursuit and the subject focused their need to work together. I did not start with group work as a default position.
To make group-work work, make it content rich and only when children have something to ‘bring to the group’ should you consider inviting them to move from the ‘Me to the We’.