OK. I have 3 points to make:
- Group work does not make us more creative and it does not make us work harder.
- Learning is social and effective group work (apparently) doubles the speed of students’ learning.
- Almost all teaching in schools depends on a teacher’s ability to create effective groups because, wait for it, classes are just large groups.
Let’s deal with each of these in a bit more detail.
Firstly, as I’ve discussed before, when we try to work together to work towards a collective goal we get, what is known as the Ringelmann Effect. This means that in a group each member believes that every other member is doing the hard work. This makes us feel that we can take it easy because our lack of effort will not be exposed. The argument here is that working in a group is ineffective because everybody slacks off. The alternative is, I suppose, that we each individually try to build our own Statue of Liberty or Great Wall of China?
There is also the argument that group brainstorming makes us less creative as it actually limits our capacity to come up with interesting ideas. There are lots of research on this and it certainly seems compelling. But there’s a certain amount of common sense that we need to apply here. We’ve all encountered students who struggle to answer questions and come up with ideas. Left to their own devices they sit, head on desk in an expanding pool of drool. We all know, that simply getting them to discuss some possibilities with the student sitting next to them will be sufficient to jolly them along. Maybe they haven’t become more creative – maybe this just gives them less of an excuse for doing nothing? Who cares: it gets them working. I’m sure we can all cite thousands of examples from our own lives of occasions when a simple conversation with a friend or colleague opened up new possibilities or pointed us in previously unexplored directions. Conclusion: when research findings run counter to experience we need to be suspicious.
So, if we accept that while group brainstorming may not be all it’s cracked up to be but that talking to people about our ideas is hugely important then we should be well on our way to accepting that learning is essentially social. Yes, of course, we can learn by ourselves: from written texts. Which someone else has written. It’s not too great a stretch to agree that the acts of reading and writing are essentially similar to the acts of speaking and listening and that reading is another way to have a conversation. Anyway, that’s all rather beside the point.
Dylan Wiliam says that effective group work requires two ingredients: collaborative goals and individual accountability. If we have one without the other, then the group work will not be effective. Teachers are generally good at creating group work where the first condition is met but less good in ensuring accountability. Wiliam points out that selecting a student to report back to the class before the work is finished is a bad error. It means that only one group member is accountable and that everyone else can muck about. If, however, you don’t say who will be reporting until after the task is completed everybody is on their toes. Here he is in his own words:
The shock horror moment for me is at the end where he concludes that jigsawing is ineffective because it doesn’t meet these two conditions. Now, I have no idea how Dylan has approached jigsawing during his 8 years of teaching but I’m guessing it was nothing like my approach. Maybe there’s a semantic issue here but what he calls jigsawing is what I call Home/Expert groups and this is, as I’ve said before, the Ultimate Teaching Technique. What makes it so effective is that it is focussed so tightly on ensuring individual accountability; if you haven’t worked as part of your expert group you will be publicly exposed as a lazy toe rag when you return to your home group. For some other techniques for creating effective group work have a look at Alex Quigley’s Top 10 Group work strategies.
Although he mentions Robert Slavin, Wiliam doesn’t clearly cite his evidence for the claim that effective group work doubles the speed of students’ learning but I’d be very interested to see the research.
My third and final point on the efficacy of group work is the rather obvious observation that all teaching is group work. Classes are groups and our goal is, surely, for these groups to work. When teachers (and students) rail against group work what they’re objecting to is small groups within the larger group working on some extended task. My point is this: your objections to group work come down solely, it would seem, to the size of the group you are working with. A class of 30 individuals working in silence on a controlled assessment is still a group and a teacher will have had to work hard to create the conditions for the individuals in that group to work effectively. The collaborative goal (that the group is functional) maybe be fairly loose, but this is still a goal which requires the collaboration of all within the group. We have all had the experience of ‘bad’ groups and dread, say, Year 9 on a Friday afternoon. This is because we are, mistakenly, prioritising individual accountability over collaborative goals. The collaboration must be addressed before any work can be done. Failure to deal with poor behaviour for learning will mean that you will preside over a horribly stressful situation for everyone involved.
Yes, of course bad group work is bad. But all sorts of wonderful things can be screwed by the incompetent or the ignorant. The point has to be that unless we try to be better at designing effective groupwork we are doing our students and society a disservice.
And to finish; watch this lovely piece of film and ask yourself what else would be impossible without group work.