Should group work be imposed?

//Should group work be imposed?

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.
2015-02-16T20:35:22+00:00February 15th, 2015|Featured|


  1. […] Read more on The Learning Spy… […]

  2. LeahS (@LearntSchool) February 15, 2015 at 10:40 am - Reply

    Just to chime in from a student perspective… what if the most important thing is how the teacher works best? Hear me out: 30 students in a class, we all individual people with different cares, interests, life situations etc. It’s almost crazy to group us together and say ‘Here. This is what’s best for all of you’ or, more realistically ‘I can never give any of you what is best for you, so I’ll try to do a bit of everything in every lesson and you each take what you can.’ But, with just one teacher, that teacher can say exactly what is best for him/herself, right? So, if you’re the kind of teacher that just loves the buzz and noise of everyone talking together and you’re happily flying around hearing and joining in the conversations and you have a gift for increasing the energy and depth of conversation in this environment… then go for it. Heck; make all your lessons that way! We’ll be with you for one hour then we go to the next class where a more introverted teacher show us a quieter world of learning via mostly individual thinking and reasoning. And our other teachers show us all shades in between. What if this works? What if this makes teachers happy so students spend less time with adults doing their very best but always feeling inadequate by the impossibility of the task… because we can see this, you know. Your classroom, your atmosphere. Think about that way you teach when we’re ready for the exam and there is no more pressure and think about the way you would teach if there were no restrictions… how close can you get to this every day?

    • David Didau February 15, 2015 at 12:27 pm - Reply

      Hi Leah – thanks for such a thoughtful contribution. I think essentially you’re right: teachers are probably best off doing what they’re best at. As you say, students will experience the full gamut of styles and preferences and should have their own preferences met albeit in an ad hoc, haphazard manner.

      • LeahS (@LearntSchool) February 15, 2015 at 2:10 pm - Reply

        I’d say the main advantage of this is that students are far more likely to discover, develop and work in-line with their own best style as adults IF we see our teachers being, well… unapologetic about bringing their own style into teaching. I’m seeing too many of my friends, now in jobs, endlessly needing assurance; what do you think of me? will you tell me if I’m good enough?… this is exhausting and wastes so much talent. So I’m asking that teachers consider finding and developing their own personal style of teaching in order to benefit their students long term attitude towards doing what they believe is best even when there is no one to say ‘good work’. Plus I’m certain this will be a fun professional journey for any teacher who tries!

  3. teachingbattleground February 15, 2015 at 11:10 am - Reply

    The most interesting part of the response for me was those who denied, or seemed unaware, that group work had been pushed on teachers. Group work is not, by the standards of ideas in progressive education, a particularly bad thing. The finding that it seems roughly neutral seems about right (although Hattie referenced some unpublished research showing that it depends on the subject and it’s particularly ineffective in my subject). It’s not something that needs to be discouraged. But we have been through a prolonged period, possibly one that is still not over, where group work was seen as essential in all subjects and teachers were judged on whether they used it. That is what we need to get in perspective, and that is why the attempts to defend group work have me worried, particularly where they appeal to the idea that it teaches some kind of essential, generic collaboration skill for use in real life, or that those of us who find group work to be over hyped and unnecessary are somehow bad or lazy teachers who have failed to make it work.

    • David Didau February 15, 2015 at 12:30 pm - Reply

      Too true – and that particular concern was dealt with, I hope, in the first of my group work posts. Enforcing teaching techniques, however effective they may be for me, on you, is unlikely to end well.

  4. Pete February 15, 2015 at 3:46 pm - Reply

    It may be a minor point, and stating the obvious, but group work can hinder the development of a more substantial body of work. If we want an evidence base that is significant for external verification, it helps if students do a bit more written work! Certainly addresses the ‘progress over time’ issue more effectively.

  5. steve har February 15, 2015 at 9:54 pm - Reply

    Following up to last paragraph.

    Bit of straw horse-kill here, eh?
    “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.

    So…more heroic specialists performing live at the front of the room, less tutoring, P2P tasks, group coaching, fewer summative public presentations from learners. Forget connected classrooms and mobile instructing, no flipping around either.

    I vote for more experiments, trials and research reports while you continue doing the kind of instruction you surely must do well.

    • David Didau February 16, 2015 at 9:57 am - Reply

      I’m not entirely sure what you’re objecting to or why you feel the sentiments expressed in the paragraph you highlight are being caricatured as a ‘straw horse’? Is that the same as a straw man? If so, what views have been attributed to you that you don’t hold?

      It seems to me that (and I’m speculating) that our views on education probably are very different. Most of the things in your list I things I would rate as ranging from ‘harmless’ to ‘a complete waste of time’.

      If you feel the body of work on my blog can in any way be interpreted as a vote for less “experiments, trials and research reports” then I’d be interested to hear how you’ve arrived at this apparently mystifying judgement.

      I am ever mystified as to why gentle critique of a teaching strategy (of all things) results in such defensive bombast. To clarify my view on group work (as on most things) is that it’s fine in its place but should NEVER be enforced on those who see no point in using it.

  6. Teaching | Pearltrees February 16, 2015 at 10:15 am - Reply

    […] Group work: why the big deal? – David Didau: The Learning Spy. I recently posted some thoughts on what group work is and isn’t good for. […]

  7. David H February 16, 2015 at 9:53 pm - Reply

    You make a very good point about academic discourse needing to be modeled. There is a sense that you can lose this with ‘ partner talk’ unless VERY carefully structured.

  8. pedagoginthemachine February 21, 2015 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    I think if you ask “should teaching method x be imposed” the answer is self-evidently “no”. But if the question is “should methods for running effective group work be explicitly taught as part of ITE, so that teachers can make informed decisions about when and where to employ it most effectively, and to mitigate against the many problems associated with ‘bad groupwork’?” the answer is equally self-evident.

    • David Didau February 21, 2015 at 12:23 pm - Reply

      You’re right: it is self-evident. Such precious time ought not be wasted on something so unneccessary.


  9. pedagoginthemachine February 21, 2015 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    So just to recap, you have gone from saying “group work can be more effective at disseminating knowledge than direct instruction” to “we should not even train teachers how to use group work effectively”. We are definitely in u-turn territory here David…! I don’t understand how you can still advocate for its occasional use, while saying teachers shouldn’t be trained in how to use it effectively. Given the many problems that can arise from badly structured group work, this doesn’t seem to add up at all.

    • David Didau February 21, 2015 at 3:43 pm - Reply

      I used to uncritically accept a lot of things. I used to believe that independent learning was essential. As such, group work was a big part of my practice. I now recognise this is bunk but I still quite enjoy pupils working in groups (mainly cos I’m pretty good at it.)

      Here’s what I think about group work:
      1) A bit of variety is quite nice for teachers and students alike.
      2) It will not work if behaviour is not properly supported by the school unless the teacher is very experienced.
      3) If behaviour is not an issue there a couple of straightforward ingredients you should include to make sure individuals are held accountable for their contributions.
      4) In some subjects group work is essential (PE, drama, music etc.) but in most subjects ends can usually be achieved more efficiently and effectively by other means.

      ITT is too important to spend on something so ephemeral. Far better to spend much more time on behaviour, literacy and subject specificity. I could cover the dos and don’ts of group work in an hour or less.

      • pedagoginthemachine February 21, 2015 at 5:44 pm - Reply

        1) This strikes me as an unusual rationale for someone as minded to think in terms of opportunity cost as you are. The same could be said for Brain Gym – on this basis would you advocate for its use also?
        2) Agree – same could be said for most things
        3) In your piece last week you said “Enormous amounts of effort and expertise must be applied to get groups working in a functional way” – now you say it boils down to one or two straightforward ingredients?
        4) Depends on your ends

        Re ITT, I’m not sure what you mean here – as far as I understand it, ephemeral means short-lasting – do you mean to say that any gains arising from group work diminish quickly? And if you’re referring to the idea that it only takes “an hour or less” to teach the dos and don’ts, then why not include it? I’m not suggesting we should spend weeks on group work, but I absolutely believe it should be covered at ITT, with top-up support available as and when needed.

        You say you “used to believe that independent learning was essential.” Essential for what? If you mean essential for an ‘Ofsted good’ lesson, as I said in my blog I share your concern that independent learning tasks alone are an inadequate route to independent learning behaviours. But that doesn’t devalue the importance of independent learning behaviours in themselves. Do you really not believe independent learning behaviours are essential to a student’s success? This may be anecdotal, but in my experience by far and away the most important factor in a student’s academic achievement (or otherwise) is whether they have a well-established repertoire of independent learning behaviours, which they can use both within and outside of lessons. And most often the reason students perform poorly in exams is that they haven’t learned and practiced the basic organisational behaviours that underpin independent study – time management, making to do lists, prioritising competing tasks, incentivising yourself, having a range of strategies etc. I think well structured group work can help students develop autonomous learning behaviours that can serve as a model for independent study at home – at least, a better model than being dependent solely on direct instruction.

        I think it is always tempting for teachers seek to exercise more control in lessons – i.e. to shift the balance away from group work and toward direct instruction – input, worked example, practice, feed back, test, DIRT, interleave, repeat. And when we do this we may well deliver the material more effectively, and improve short-term retention. But these things too come with an opportunity cost. In this case, I believe that in pursuing these practises exclusively we also create a culture of dependency – the more effectively we shovel, the less the students feel they need to do anything other than come to lessons / the odd revision session. And that seems to me to be worth considering also

        • David Didau February 22, 2015 at 1:40 pm - Reply

          1) I guess you could use variety as a justification for brain gym. I don’t see group work as quite such a waste of resources, but yes, I agree – it’s a very poor rationale for any strategy. That is my point.
          2) Good.
          3) Enormous effort in terms of the relationships and behaviour groundwork needed to make sure it isn’t an utter waste of time. Once you’re experienced enough, or if you work in a school with excellent behaviour support, then effective group work is a doddle.
          4) Yes it does. Which is why I think it’s a waste of time debating the merits of groupwork (or any other teaching strategy) until we’ve reached some sort of agreement on what education is for.

          ITT – we already DO spend weeks and weeks on group work (or at least my PGCE did) leading to the neglect of much more important areas and to very little effect.

          It’s “always tempting for teachers to seek to exercise more control in lessons” because that is generally a far more productive use of time. I far sooner shovel useful knowledge than shovel how to work in groups. But again, until we agree what ed is for we’re unlikely to find much common ground here.

          • stevehar February 22, 2015 at 6:26 pm

            Recommend reading this from Eric Mazur who teaches Physics at Harvard.Peer Instruction: Getting Students to Think in Class.

            Generally he tries to
            -minimize time spent in class on lectures.
            -engage learners with short video clips & to prepare material mastery questions ahead of time

            I’ve never been to one of his classes live. Some samples are available on YouTube.

            Mazur appears to have a purposeful set of distinctions about how teachers and students work both individually and in peer groups to engage learning than your term “group work” terms. Same stuff or different, not sure? Wonder what your view might be of his teaching and peer-learning distinctions?

            It does seem that
            -students who are effective at listening to and taking notes on well-organized lecture material are uncomfortable with a different learning challenge.
            -teachers who love being at the front of the room lecturing doubtless are uncomfortable with a different teaching challenge as well.

  10. […] 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.  […]

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