Group work is a lively topic that draws some controversy and debate. Some teachers see it as an essential component of any lesson, whereas others spurn group work and prefer a steady diet of direct teacher instruction. Like most things in the classroom, it is as effective as how well it is implemented.
Without specific parameters of behaviour and what is required of the task, students will exercise their urge for ‘social loafing’ (students putting in less effort when they know they can because other group members pick up the slack) or discussing the most salient cat video on YouTube!
The ‘behaviour guru’ himself, Tom Bennett, has grappled with the group work topic in his excellent American Federation of Teachers article – see here. He relfects that it can prove useful, but with a strong caveat: “When students bring the necessary focus to group work, and when teachers use it appropriately—that is, to supplement instruction, not replace it—group work can go a long way in reinforcing content knowledge.” Bennett agrees that students sharing and debating their opinions and knowledge has value, but he states the primarcy of the teacher as expert: “when it comes to factual conveyance, that’s what a subject expert is for.”
It is a case of balance. Clearly, we want students to be able to reason and debate with one another, shaping and testing their ideas and their uderstanding. We want them to listen to the opinion of others and cooperate effectively. Effective collaborative learning doesn’t simply make such behaviours so. Students need the emotional intelligence to communicate effectively.
Towards Structured debate
“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.”
Well-structured debate, with individual responsibility and clarity of goals, is important to establish. If we want confident, engaged citizens, then I reckon some debating skills may just prove a crucial skill for life. Happily, debating has been going on for centuries and we can borrow some of the more formal rules. I like the ‘Oxford rules’ model for its degree of clarity. The rules are as follows.
- Four speakers in each team (for and against the motion)
- First speaker introduces all the ideas that team has generated
- Second speaker outlines two or three more ideas in some depth
- Third speaker outlines two or three ideas in some depth
- Fourth speaker criticises the points made by the other team
- Each individual speaker has two minutes to speak (or more of course), with protected time ofthirty seconds at the beginning or the end
- The rest of the team is the ‘Floor‘ and can interject at any time by calling out ‘Point of Information‘ and standing. The speaker can accept or reject an interjection.
Though such a structure would not be replicated in every lesson, it proves a thorough and clear model to build constructive talk and balanced debate. Of course, students need to be prepared for their given debate and possible counter-arguments if this group work is to work properly. The devil is in the detail and the preparation.
- Sarah Donarski has written eloquently on the ‘Harkness method’ in ‘How to Harkness: Strategies and Advice‘.
- The EEF Toolkit strand on ‘Collaborative Learning‘ has some really helpful questions to pose teachers considering group work, with ‘Peer tutoring‘ proving another viable model.