I recently posted some thoughts on what group work is and isn’t good for. At no point did I say it was good for nothing (although predictably my opinion was caricatured as ‘hating’ group work) and I have never claimed that it cannot work.

Some of the criticisms I received were as follows:

Group work is better than lecturing. I’m not sure I can even be bothered responding to this except to say that group work is also better than being punched in the face, but that’s not saying much! As soon as decide lecturing is a preferable alternative I’ll let you know.

– Everything of worth requires collaboration so we get students to collaborate as often as possible. This is only true in the abstract. Many things are in fact only possible individually. Of course we rely on others for information and inspiration – after all, that’s what a teacher is for. Although the ideas of others can make a dramatic influence on our thinking, only an individual can have an idea. This is not an argument for group work so much as it’s an argument for not consigning students to solitary confinement with no access to the outside world.

If teachers cannot use group work effectively we should put more resources into helping them do it better. I actually dealt with this in the original post. Of course anything under the sun can either be done badly or well. I don’t for a moment imagine that teachers cannot run slick group work. My point is that the normal experience of very many students and teachers is that working in groups is a pretty awful experience. If we commit resources to training teachers to do it better what will the opportunity cost be? Significant resources have been committed to the independent learning trope over the last 5-10 years already and if lots of teachers are still struggling maybe this tells us something important? Maybe there’s a significant minority of teachers who just aren’t up to it? Or maybe it’s actually very difficult to do group work well? Either way, there would have to be a compelling reason to make the effort.

– “Great group work is better than any other form of learning, ending in making you smarter”. And here’s the reason! If it’s true that group work leads to better learning than any other form of teaching then we really should commit to upskilling teachers. Anything else would be a deliberate and unjustifiable decision to prevent children from becoming cleverer. So what is this claim based on?

Well, ‘the evidence’ of course. I’ve read through Robert Slavin’s work looking for the magic beans advocates often claim exist. So far I’ve not found them. Admittedly, that might be down to either my lack of skill in reading research or because I’m a wilful victim of confirmation bias.

Then there’s the Education Endowment Foundation’s summary of collaborative learning. The EEF rates collaborative learning as likely to accelerate students’ learning by 5 months. This equates to an effect size of 0.36 – 0.44 which is just around the hinge point (0.4) at which Hattie declared an intervention not to be worth the effort. The EEF describes this sort of effect size as ‘moderate’. In their summary they say, “Evidence about the benefits of collaborative learning has been found consistently for over 40 years and a number of systematic reviews and meta-analyses of research studies have been completed.” Right. Research have been able to find evidence for pretty much anything they’ve looked for (except Learning Styles) and so the existence of evidence in and or itself is hardly conclusive. What of the quality of the evidence? Reading the abstracts of the studies cited (I’m afraid that’s all I’ve done) is interesting. The different researchers all claim collaborative (or cooperative) learning is beneficial, they don’t agree what it is and sometimes contradict each other (it’s best for adolescents Nunnery, Chappell & Arnold, 2013 vs. it’s best for elementary students Puzio & Colby, 2013.) Most of them acknowledge that we should be a bit more cautious than to say “group work is better than any other form of learning”.

Probably the best reason I’ve been presented with for why collaborative learning works is because it gets students to talk to each other about the subject being studied.

…talking about one’s thinking enhances the learning process, and with that, understanding. In a study conducted to measure just that – the ability to use language as a tool for thinking about science and mathematics (Dawes, Mercer & Wegerif, 2000), students who were engaged in relevant classroom discussions outperformed the control group on both teacher-constructed measures and science tests (Dawes, Mercer, Wegerif & Sams, 2004). They also outperformed the controls on a spatial test of intelligence (namely, Raven’s Progressive Matrices).

Language and Thinking, Cristina Milos

I wholeheartedly agree that language is an essential component for learning. The more you speak and a subject the more you will have to think about that subject. And the better children can think, the better they are likely to learn. This was something I acknowledged in my original post. What I take issue with is the proposition that group work is the best way to get children to talk about a subject.

To be successful, emphasis must be placed not just on what children are asked to talk about but how they are asked to talk. I’m a believer in Neil Mercer’s colleague at Cambridge University, Robin Alexander’s suggestion that ‘talk is cognitive’: if you change the way someone speaks, you change the way they think. By getting children to talk in the academic language of a subject we give them the academic language to think with. If they can think in the language of academic success then it becomes more likely that they will be academically successful.

In order to get children speaking in academic language teachers need to commit time to modelling academic discourse and scaffolding students’ attempts to change their speech. When children talk together in small groups it has hard to monitor how they are speaking. It’s very easy – and completely predictable – for children to further embed bad habits. In structured whole class discussions, a teacher can support and correct  students’ language at the point of speech. With sufficient practice at this one hopes they will embed academic language sufficiently well to use it independently of the teacher but I see this as taking place towards the end of a teaching sequence rather than at the beginning. What I would suggest is plenty of short, focussed paired discussion with students being asked to report back what they have just heard using the language of academic success. I go into all this at length in my book The Secret of Literacy.

Suffice it to say that group work may not be the best way to ensure that children improve their thinking about a subject. To conclude let me be absolutely clear on my views on group work:

  1. It’s neither good or bad – it has its place and is more central to some subjects than to others.
  2. It’s not the only way to skin a cat. Whenever someone suggests students should work in groups I can usually think of a more efficient and effective way to learn the material they are studying. Maybe we should only use collaborative learning when it is more efficient and effective than other techniques? There is always an opportunity cost.
  3. Enforcing a teaching technique is never a good thing. What works well for you in your subject might not work well for me in mine. Forcing teachers to do something they’re not very good at is unlikely to benefit children. This applies for every pedagogical approach and gimmick ever conceived of, including the ones I favour.
  4. If you’re using group work because you believe it enhances students’ non-cognitive skills or better prepares them for the world of work then you’re on dodgy ground. But that said, your beliefs about education may be fundamentally different to mine so it may be we will never agree.