Pedagogy Postcard #9: Group Work

A series of short posts about specific elements of teaching practice that I think are effective and make life interesting. Some are based on my own lessons and others are borrowed from lessons I’ve observed.Slide1 Talking about group work in teaching as a defined ‘thing’ that could be useful, useless, a waste of time or an essential experience is a bit like talking about homework, teacher talk or ‘asking questions’ in the same terms. It’s a bizarre and often meaningless discussion given the diverse range of possibilities for what working in groups could be.

The question we should be asking is this: What are the circumstances in which it is in students’ interests to work in a group in order to enhance their learning relative to working individually? It’s important to ask that question because it cuts both ways:

1) If group work can enhance the learning, then it is probably worth doing. Why wouldn’t you?

2) If the group work is unlikely to enhance the learning, then it’s probably better not to do it. Why would you?

In working out the answer to the question, there are several variables to consider:

  • The nature of the task and the extent to which the dynamics of working in a group could play a part in making the learning more effective, notwithstanding the practical constraints that may force group work on you due to the need for students to share resources and equipment.
  • The make-up of the groups in terms of size, ability profile and attitudes to learning. (See the Ringelmann effect re group size)
  • The structure of the group in terms of the role of each person in it (defined roles or de facto roles): including, for example, the implementation of strategies to avoid Kagan’s ‘hogs and logs’ syndrome – where some people dominate while others are simply passengers.
  • The extent to which prior knowledge is a pre-requisite for the group task to enhance learning and the extent to which each student has the knowledge required.
  • The time taken by the activity in relation to other types of activity and the extent to which this represents an effective use of that time compared to other possible activities.

So, let’s not just assume that group work inherently a ‘good thing’. OR, that it’s inherently a low-level activity that gives the illusion of students being busy and learning when actually they are not.

In my experience, there are some basic requirements for excellent group work and, when they are in place, the learning is superb. In fact, at KEGS, I’d say that many of the best lessons I’ve seen have involved aspects of group work. The basic requirements as I see them are:

1) Each person in a group must be able to make a contribution: this requires thinking about group size and roles. In a Lesson Study I took part in this term, we found that students in threes created a passenger and weaker students were more likely to be squeezed out. It also means making sure they have the knowledge and resources needed to add value to the group activity.

2) The learning outcomes need to dominate over the group dynamics. If students are unable to take turns, are excessively dominant or passive, then the content of the learning is going to be largely social…not intellectual. There is a case for teaching students how to function in groups’s a learning goal in itself – but maybe not right now when you want to focus on some geographical analysis or the future tense in French.

3) The activity must deliver a learning experience that depends on interaction with others in order to achieve the learning aims; group work is not simply parallel individual work in a social huddle. Very often, effective group work is based around discussion to evaluate the relative strength of different ideas or where cooperation leads to stronger problem-solving power.

The implications are clear. Don’t choose a group activity if students don’t know enough in advance to make it meaningful and risk simply recycling their existing weak knowledge and misconceptions; if the group dynamics are such that the acquisition of knowledge you’re after is unlikely to take place or if they’d get more out of doing the same thing by themselves.

It’s obvious enough that some subjects are more likely to lend themselves to meeting these requirements than others but, across the curriculum, I’ve seen countless examples where the requirements have been met.

MFL: Role play in German; Y8 students putting their books down, acting out discussions about a planned excursion, thinking on their feet in response to each other’s questions and answers.  This depended on each person having enough they could say to sustain the role play but it was an essential activity to give each student the opportunity to develop their capacity for recall, spontaneity and responsiveness.

English:  Textual analysis through performance. Y12s working in groups to perform poems, using tone and gesture to communicate meaning.  The group aspect was extended to assessing the quality of their own performances prior to re-running them with improved outcomes.  Another example was a Y13 ‘text summary’ activity with students  working in groups to compare their interpretations of a play against a range of themes having read the play in advance at home, producing visual representations of the play highlighting the elements of structure, language, genre indicators and so on.  Here the collective output was greater than any one student could have managed.

History: Y10 Students in groups of four studying the Russian Civil War between the Reds and the Whites circa 1920. Their task was to evaluate 20 stated features of the Red and White campaigns to arrive at an agreed view of the most significant factor.  The group work was essential because different students expressed alternative positions than needed to be justified.  It relied on good prior knowledge as ever; this was evident and was reinforced with good resources that captured the prior learning on one large A3 sheet.

Geography:  Y12 tsunami warning activity using software that produces a tidal wave across a virtual coastal landscape after 30 minutes, requiring students working in groups to plan a strategy to minimise loss of life. Whilst this could be done individually, the group element is a more accurate simulation whereby different people express alternatives and only one decision can be taken at numerous points.

RE: Y9 students engaged in debates on various ethical issues. Here they needed to listen carefully to the views of others and construct their counter-arguments.  The discussion was informed by good preparation and students were clearly refining their analysis in response to other people’s views.  You can’t debate with yourself in a meaningful way; if debate matters then so does group work.

Maths: Group puzzles.  Yes! I’d suggest that Maths is an area where group work is less likely to be of inherent value compared to other subjects. However, I’ve seen tasks created that generated learning in an incredibly exciting manner, using group problem solving as the driver.  Some of this work is described in this excellent Learning Lessons by a former KEGS teacher Rachael Read.  In one lesson students had 10 problems to solve in pairs; they needed to select the order of the problems based on their difficulty with some solutions dependent on others.  All the answers linked into an over-arching code- breaking puzzle. I’ve seen this done with Y12 on calculus and Y10 on quadratic equations.  The main gain compared to just doing a set of questions from a book or doing the same task individually was in the need to agree an overall strategy; this involves high-level mathematical discussions.  It greats intrinsic motivation – a sense of purpose that yields significant gains in productivity.  As one of many lines of attack in the teaching of maths, group work like this has its place.

Subjects like Drama, PE and Music, are natural homes of group work for obvious reasons – collaboration is an inherent element of the subject.  The question here is not whether to do group work, but how much freedom to give groups to organise themselves and make choices.  A successful rehearsal of a four-piece band or a group performance or training session requires a certain degree of leadership and cooperation – skills that are certainly worth developing.

In my own Science lessons, students work in groups a lot.  I recognise that often this is simply because of the constraints on equipment.  In class practicals, there isn’t enough kit for them all to work individually so group work is a necessity.  In that context it’s not possible to say that the group work itself is adding value in terms of conceptual understanding and recall.  It probably isn’t.  In fact it’s worth asking whether they’d be better off working individually if they had the chance. However, I do believe that social learning is an inevitable element of school life so students should learn to make the most of it.  Any number of activities from simple think-pair-share questioning, to longer debates, discussions, presentations, practicals and data analysis tasks can be enriched by sharing and challenging the ideas and conclusions of others.  That in itself is part of the real-world scientific process.   The co-construction method that I’m exploring is based around groups working together and I believe that adds significant value to the learning process overall.

Overall, in a flow of lessons across a unit of work, elements of group work mixed in with many other modes of learning is perfectly sensible and natural and can be highly effective.  However,  as far as possible, it should be a conscious decision to use group work because of the benefit to the learning derived from it rather than it being a default mode.


  1. Just a thought to add, Tom. Groups need to be challenged with complex tasks that require a range of knowledge, skills or perspectives. Too often we give groups learning tasks that are too simple that would be better done by an individual.
    Regards Stephen


  2. I think Stephen’s point is important but I did pick that up from the post too – from the examples, which are all complex tasks, and your commentary on them, and point 3). I find myself in agreement and occupying the middle ground yet again – here direct teaching comes first when the pupils need the basic ideas and don’t have much to build on, but then groupwork (a teaching technique that might be dismissed by some as constructivist nonsense despite the good evidence in support of its effectiveness) can be a good way to develop pupils’ ability to apply the knowledge, evaluate arguments, or just appreciate layers of subtlety.


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