Making a success of group work
In an ideal world we would always see children working together to find a solution but, in reality, we see mixed results in the effectiveness of classroom collaboration. All teachers experience moments when group dynamics mean that any kind of constructive work on a task breaks down. This can happen for a number of reasons: one student is too dominant, another can’t listen to others’ ideas or a pupil sulks because the group isn’t doing what they wanted to do. Effective group work doesn’t just happen, so as teachers, we need to actively work on creating environments where it does.
There’s plenty of research that suggests ways to support and foster effective group work. Here are some strategies to implement in your classroom:
Have an ongoing conversation with your class about what’s required for groups to work well. Listen to their ideas and create some ‘guidelines for talk’ for your whole class to follow and develop over the year. Make and put up posters so these guidelines are visible throughout the year.
Children work more effectively in smaller than larger groups. Experiment and work out what is the optimum group size for your current class.
Take care in structuring the classroom for collaborative work, even working on a table that’s too large will inhibit conversation and students will end up splintered, not working as one group, but several.
Developing skills for effective dialogue is an important life skill for all learners. Not only will pupils learn mutual understanding and respect for an increasingly globalised world, it also celebrates diversity of thought and experience. Collaborative, heterogeneous, mixed-ability contexts provide an opportunity for a richer learning environment, moving us away from transmission of information from the teacher and into learning experiences which provide greater autonomy for the learner.
Aki Murata, Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Florida, writes that in a classroom “with students with different levels of mathematics understanding, while it is not necessarily true that all individuals in the classroom reach the same learning destination…at the end of the instructional period, they will be stimulated to learn more than they can individually with a teacher.” Providing a social context for learning means that, to some extent, pupils teach each other. Providing these opportunities for collaboration lets them to grow in understanding and appreciation of each other as people, regardless of their differences. They will grow therefore as learners and as people.
Recently, I overheard one 7 year old student say to another: “I loved the way you explained that to me”. How happy that made me feel!