I thought I’d said all I ever wanted to say about group work until, responding to a tweet from an education professor exhorting all teachers to add group work to their teaching repertoires, I unwisely suggested that maybe that wasn’t such great advice.

In all honesty, I really don’t care that much about whether teachers have their students work in groups or not; what irks me is the idea that teachers should get their students to work in groups. But in the responses to that tweet, Dylan Wiliam popped up to remind us about Robert Slavin’s finding that if the purpose of group work is to improve the learning of every member then it will require both group goals and individual accountability. Teachers are generally good at creating group goals but less good at ensuring each member of a group is individually accountable. 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. With this sort of tweaking you can do much to ensure that many of the ills of group work are avoided.

Against my better judgement I waded into a discussion about teaching methods that is, perhaps, only the third or fourth most important consideration for schools and teachers.

Does avoiding negatives mean that students working collaboratively is a good thing? Well, that’s an empirical question. To answer it we need to first agree the aims of teaching. If, as I believe, the purpose of teaching is to expand children’s knowledge base to enable them to think new thoughts then my instinct is that we are best served by interactive whole class instruction. If instead you believe teaching should aim to produce some other, more nebulous aim that results in important but hard-to-see benefits then the onus is on you to say what those benefits are and how we would know whether teaching has an effect.

The 2015 PISA results provide a useful data source. According to students’ self reports, teaching is far more likely to be teacher directed than to involve enquiry-based methods (into which category I would place group work and collaborative learning). Even in systems which report far less teacher direction, the ratio is still about 2:1 and in some territories the ratio is closer to 4:1. In the highest performing systems the ratio is about 3:1. McKinsey’s analysis suggests this is the sweet spot and the best approach “combines teacher directed instruction is most to all classes and inquiry based learning in some.”

The more lessons focus on inquiry-based methods the lower student attainment becomes. These findings are also born out by a variety of other sources. Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction (Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning; present new material in small steps with student practice after each step; ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students; provide models; guide student practice; check for student understanding; obtain a high success rate; provide scaffolds for difficult tasks; require and monitor independent practice; engage students in weekly and monthly review.) are all hallmarks of fully guided instruction and largely absent from most iterations of collaborative learning. As Rosenshine points out, his principles are derived from “three different sources: research on how the mind acquires and uses information, the instructional procedures that are used by the most successful teachers, and the procedures invented by researchers to help students learn difficult tasks.” He goes on:

Even though these principles come from three different sources, the instructional procedures that are taken from one source do not conflict with the instructional procedures that are taken from another source. Instead, the ideas from each of the sources overlap and add to each other. This overlap gives us faith that we are developing a valid and research-based understanding of the art of teaching.

This article by Richard Clarke, Paul Kirschner and John Sweller provides yet more support for fully guided instruction.

Added to this we also have the incredible success of Engelmann’s Direction Instruction model. DI is a very specific method of both teaching and curriculum design. It takes as its starting premise that if children struggle to learn, this should be seen as a problem with the instructional design rather than evidence that the child is incapable of learning. Engelmann sought to eliminate anything in his instructional sequences that could be considered ambiguous or misleading with the result that his scripted programmes could be faithfully reproduced by any teacher anywhere.

Project Follow Through, the largest, most expensive education study ever conducted involving over 70,000 students in 180 schools across the US ran from 1967-1995. Follow Through pitted various approaches to teaching against each other in a straight horse race with Direct Instruction the clear winner in all categories. Not only was it the most effective programme at improving students’ literacy and maths skills, it also outperformed all other models for more generic cognitive skills and other affective areas such as self-esteem and student engagement.
screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-22-46-01As we all know, Direct Instruction did not go on to conquer the world as the most effective method for teaching children. In fact, as Douglas Carnine observed:

[DI] was not specially promoted or encouraged in any way…federal dollars were directed toward less effective models in an effort to improve their results…. [S]chools that attempted to use DI —particularly in the early grades, when DI is especially effective—were…discouraged by education organizations.

The fact that few teachers in the UK are even aware of what DI actually is, let alone use it in the classroom speaks volumes. Despite this, teacher-directed instruction seems to be far more common than student centred approaches. I reckon the reason most teachers gravitate towards whole class teaching is that it’s easier. Getting group work right is hard. As one teacher recently observed:

This is certainly my experience. Just telling kids things is usually whole lot simpler than expecting them to work together to find them out. Dylan Wiliam gets to the crux of this debate in saying, even if I were right that fully guided instruction produces optimal results, “the more important issue is which is easier to get teachers to do effectively: well-designed interactive whole-class teaching or good cooperative learning. I don’t know, but my money’s on the latter.”

This surprised me as my money’s very much on the former. so, it’s on! First, we need to know which approach produces the greatest gains in learning and second, which is easier to implement. If you have any suggestions for falsifiable criteria which can be tested in a controlled experiment I’d be very grateful if you would leave them in the comments below. If Dylan and I can agree on those criteria then the next step will be to persuade someone to help design and run a trial.