In a recent TES article James Mannion and Neil Mercer make the following claim:

In not using group work, students are denied the chance to develop skills that can not only help them perform better in schools, but which are also vital for their future employment prospects – not to mention the realisation of a more fully participatory democracy.

First, let me state that I see nothing inherently wrong with pupils working collaboratively. Like any method of working, it has its time and place. But I was led to believe that unless a lesson contained an element of groupwork it could not be a good lesson. It’s not enough to claim that ‘no one really believes this’. I did. I come a from a generation of teachers raised to believe groupwork is inherently good and for that reason alone it deserves to be questioned, prodded and poked.

It’s easy to poke fun at groupwork (just google “groupwork+funny”) but let’s consider what the problems might actually be.

Way back in 1913 French agricultural engineer, Maximilien Ringelmann discovered something rather surprising: the productivity of a group decreases as its size increases. If we pull a rope all by ourselves we tend to pull our hardest but as soon as others pop up to help us out we slacken off. Even though they are likely to be unaware of this slackening of effort, everyone pulls a bit less hard. The bigger the group, the greater the tendency for social loafing. The Ringelmann Effect suggests that when we’re part of a group we believe every other member is doing the hard work. We can take it easy because our lack of effort won’t be exposed. Unconsciously, we rely on those around us to pull out the stops to get the job done. This phenomenon is well known to teachers. It ought to be reasonable to expect a group of four pupils to produce four times as much work collectively as they would produce alone. In fact they tend to produce less together than they might alone.

Not only that, working in groups actually makes us less creative. In particular, ‘brain-storming’ (or ‘thought-showering’ if you prefer the more politically correct synonym) actually limits our capacity to come up with interesting ideas.

So why do we bother? Why have pupils work together at all?

Let’s have a think about Mannion & Mercer’s claims. Firstly the idea that group work develops skills which lead to ‘better performance’ in schools. I’ve heard this stated a number of times and usually the evidence I’m directed to points at Robert Slavin. In Cooperative Learning: What makes Groupwork Work? (Which Mannion & Mercer cite) Slavin runs through the evidence supporting many and various different forms of group (or collaborative learning) but the gains seem slight and the studies wooly. In terms of ease and effectiveness it seems preferable not to bother so there would have to be some pressing reason to make teaching more difficult than it needs to be.

So how about future employment prospects? Will group work give students a much-needed edge in the world of work? The argument here is that “by learning how to work well in teams, young people are acquiring the soft skills that are valued by employers throughout the world, and promoted by schools in high-achieving countries such as Singapore.” I understand the reasoning but it rests, I think, on the same fallacy that suggests independent learning will result in independence. In order to perform like experts, we must first be experts. Emerson tells us that “Every artist was first an amateur”. Rushing students into situations where they are expected to behave like experts misses the fact that they don’t yet know enough to do so. That doesn’t mean that there’s no point in students working together, but it does undermine the idea that groupwork creates better workers.

Finally, there is the thought that groupwork gives students an insight into democratic participation. Leaving aside the idea that we could simply teach students about democracy if we felt it was important for them to know about, I’m dubious about this proposition also. Enormous amounts of effort and expertise must be applied to get groups working in a functional way. Mannion and Mercer (M&M from now on) themselves identify that the problem with groupwork is that teachers don’t feel up to it. They say that “teachers and students just haven’t been taught well enough how to make it work.” This may be so, but is it really beneficial to expend the resources on such training? What of the opportunity cost? And unless such a commitment is made, students experience of groupwork will not be an oasis of democratic peace and love. Bad groupwork is worse than almost any other classroom sin, ending in the tyranny of the strong and the persecution of the weak.

One of M&M’s arguments for groupwork is that it develops students’ oracy. I’m a big fan of developing oracy, although probably for different reasons – I consider learning to speak the language of academic success a necessity if you are to be academically successful. Students get plenty of practice talking already – what I want is for them to have structured opportunities to take part in discussion, modelled and scaffolded by the teacher. This is least likely to happen in small groups and mostly likely to take place in either paired discussions or whole-class debates.

So is there a point to groupwork?

We’ve all encountered pupils who struggle to answer questions and come up with ideas. Left to their own devices they sit, head on desk and dream of being somewhere better. We know that simply getting them to discuss some possibilities with the student sitting next to them can 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. The point of collaboration is that it opens us to the ideas of others. But then, so does reading books.