Effective group work

Just another example of effective groupwork

Just another example of effective groupwork

OK. I have 3 points to make:

      1. Group work does not make us more creative and it does not make us work harder.
      2. Learning is social and effective group work (apparently) doubles the speed of students’ learning.
      3. Almost all teaching in schools depends on a teacher’s ability to create effective groups because, wait for it, classes are just large groups.

Let’s deal with each of these in a bit more detail.

Firstly, as I’ve discussed before, when we try to work together to work towards a collective goal we get, what is known as the Ringelmann Effect. This means that in a group each member believes that every other member is doing the hard work. This makes us feel that we can take it easy because our lack of effort will not be exposed. The argument here is that working in a group is ineffective because everybody slacks off. The alternative is, I suppose, that we each individually try to build our own Statue of Liberty or Great Wall of China?

There is also the argument that group brainstorming makes us less creative as it actually limits our capacity to come up with interesting ideas. There are lots of research on this and it certainly seems compelling. But there’s a certain amount of common sense that we need to apply here. We’ve all encountered students who struggle to answer questions and come up with ideas. Left to their own devices they sit, head on desk in an expanding pool of drool. We all know, that simply getting them to discuss some possibilities with the student sitting next to them will 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. Conclusion: when research findings run counter to experience we need to be suspicious.

So, if we accept that while group brainstorming may not be all it’s cracked up to be but that talking to people about our ideas is hugely important then we should be well on our way to accepting that learning is essentially social. Yes, of course, we can learn by ourselves: from written texts. Which someone else has written. It’s not too great a stretch to agree that the acts of reading and writing are essentially similar to the acts of speaking and listening and that reading is another way to have a conversation. Anyway, that’s all rather beside the point.

Dylan Wiliam says that effective group work requires two ingredients: collaborative goals and individual accountability. If we have one without the other, then the group work will not be effective. Teachers are generally good at creating group work where the first condition is met but less good in ensuring accountability. Wiliam points out that 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. Here he is in his own words:

The shock horror moment for me is at the end where he concludes that jigsawing is ineffective because it doesn’t meet these two conditions. Now, I have no idea how Dylan has approached jigsawing during his 8 years of teaching but I’m guessing it was nothing like my approach. Maybe there’s a semantic issue here but what he calls jigsawing is what I call Home/Expert groups and this is, as I’ve said before, the Ultimate Teaching Technique. What makes it so effective is that it is focussed so tightly on ensuring individual accountability; if you haven’t worked as part of your expert group you will be publicly exposed as a lazy toe rag when you return to your home group. For some other techniques for creating effective group work have a look at Alex Quigley’s Top 10 Group work strategies.

Although he mentions Robert Slavin, Wiliam doesn’t clearly cite his evidence for the claim that effective group work doubles the speed of students’ learning but I’d be very interested to see the research.

My third and final point on the efficacy of group work is the rather obvious observation that all teaching is group work. Classes are groups and our goal is, surely, for these groups to work. When teachers (and students) rail against group work what they’re objecting to is small groups within the larger group working on some extended task. My point is this: your objections to group work come down solely, it would seem, to the size of the group you are working with. A class of 30 individuals working in silence on a controlled assessment is still a group and a teacher will have had to work hard to create the conditions for the individuals in that group to work effectively. The collaborative goal (that the group is functional) maybe be fairly loose, but this is still a goal which requires the collaboration of all within the group. We have all had the experience of ‘bad’ groups and dread, say, Year 9 on a Friday afternoon. This is because we are, mistakenly, prioritising individual accountability over collaborative goals. The collaboration must be addressed before any work can be done. Failure to deal with poor behaviour for learning will mean that you will preside over a horribly stressful situation for everyone involved.

Yes, of course bad group work is bad. But all sorts of wonderful things can be screwed by the incompetent or the ignorant. The point has to be that unless we try to be better at designing effective groupwork we are doing our students and society a disservice.

And to finish; watch this lovely piece of film and ask yourself what else would be impossible without group work.

Related posts

Why group work works for me
What is learning?
Teaching creatively ve teaching creativity

19 Responses to Effective group work

  1. […] Effective group work « The Learning Spy Like all teachers, my main aim is to run, whooping, out of the school gates by 3 o’clock. My time is therefore precious and I can’t be wasting it mucking about planning lessons. Fortunately for us skiving scoundrels, SMW recently told us that as far as Ofsted are concerned there is no need for lesson plans. As long as lessons are planned. […]

  2. Dylan Wiliam says:

    Of course, you can define “group work” how you like, so that anything other than one-to-one tuition could be called group work. However, what Slavin and others have shown is that the crucial requirements for collaborative learning to be effective are group goals (so that students are working as a group, rather than just in a group) and individual accountability (so that each student’s performance impacts the group performance). The latter is particularly important since, as Slavin’s work shows, teachers rarely structure group work to achieve this, so that students can be passengers. One particularly effective (although extreme) approach to this is Roberto Baldino’s “Solidarity Assimilation Groups”. Students are given some material to study, and when they think they are ready, they are tested individually. Each person in the group receives the score achieved by the lowest scoring member of the group.

    The above would suggest that jigsaw groups should work effectively since they would appear to embody both group goals and individual accountability, but the empirical evidence is thin. Of course this could be because the implementations were weak but nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to support jigsaw groups. This could of course also depend on what subject matter is being studied.

    The best source for the above is:

    Slavin, R. E., Hurley, E. A., & Chamberlain, A. M. (2003). Cooperative learning and achievement. In W. M. Reynolds & G. J. Miller (Eds.), Handbook of psychology volume 7: educational psychology (pp. 177-198). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

  3. learningspy says:

    Dylan – thank you for taking time to respond – it’s very useful to have such clear parameters for effective group work and I shall certainly be auditing my teaching to ensure that Slavin’s conditions are met. As you say, this *should* suggest that jigsawing is effective.

    I routinely use the technique to get groups of students to work on analysing a part of a whole text, or on the same text which a different focus, and then report back to a home group to share the work completed in their expert groups. During some feedback on the lesson one student said, “This is the first time I’ve bothered with group work because I knew I was going to have tell everyone what I’d done and I didn’t want to let them down.” This seems a really clear case of individual accountability meshing with group goals.

    I’ve never tried Baldino’s “Solidarity Assimilation Groups” – I guess the accountability feels a little too punitive here but I’ll give it a go during the week and report back on my findings.

    Can you also explain the calculations which underpin the claim that effective group work doubles the speed of students’ learning?

    Thanks again, David

    • Roberto says:

      Solidarity Assimilation Groups”. Students are given some material to study, and when they think they are ready, they are tested individually. Each person in the group receives the score achieved by the lowest scoring member of the group.
      Indeed, I have tried this once. I also circulated an EXCELL with how much of one’s grade each student owed to each other. However, this amounted to too much pressure. At that time I still believed that any student could learn calculus, provided s/he was submitted to the adequate questioning. After having taught classes for as few as two students, I have realized that “mathematics is not for all” (as A. Pais puts it): whoever does not multiply at 8 does not differentiate at 18. I challenge Math Ed to deny this statement

  4. […] read the blog post in full visit his website and don’t forget to follow him on twitter! This entry was posted in News. Bookmark the […]

  5. […] Didau (@learningspy) “Effective Group Work” which was endorsed with a re-tweet of this link by Eric Wareham plus a second link from […]

  6. […] heads are better than one” or something of that sort when talking about the power of effective collaboration.   I’ve seen firsthand how student grouping can impact decision making and […]

  7. […] – Tags: group work, groups, Teaching – Kelsie Strohmaier – 12:40 pm Effective Group Work needs to be just that, effective group work. Most of the time group work limits our ability to […]

  8. Gareth says:

    I’m surprised by no mention of Kagan Co-operative Learning. Group work does not exist. Co-operative learning does. Every teacher should use I believe. Have you experience of Kagan structures?

  9. […] David Didau comments in his blog on effective group work Dylan William talks of two key ingredients for collaborative learning. One is shared goals and […]

  10. […] •   It fits into Dylan Wiliam’s mantra for perfect group work: the group need to have a collective goal and individuals must be accountable. There should be no place to hide. See David Didau on this issue. […]

  11. […] David Didau comments in his blog on effective group work Dylan William talks of two key ingredients for collaborative learning. One is shared goals and the […]

  12. […] for doing anything productive to ‘the geek in the group’. In one of his posts on Group Work David Didau quotes : “Dylan Wiliam says that effective group work requires two ingredients: […]

  13. […] any student falling down on the job harms the entire group’s work). [I wrote a post last year on Effective Group Work which makes these points.] And if a teacher chooses to use such techniques, the teacher is still […]

  14. […] any student falling down on the job harms the entire group’s work). [I wrote a post last year on Effective Group Work which makes these points.] And if a teacher chooses to use such techniques, the teacher is still […]

  15. […] is in a comment by Dylan responding to David Didau’s (@DavidDidau) blog on this subject. In his comment Dylan […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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