Total Teaching: every lesson is group work

It’s no secret that I think children learn best in groups. I’ve argued back and forth with sundry opponents who claim that group work is variously inefficient, pointless or too hard to do and have (to mind my mind at least) matched them stroke for stroke with no quarter given on either side. It seems that one of the main objections to group work is that it has in some way a constructivist, anti-knowledge agenda, and who knows? Maybe in some teachers’ minds it does. But for me, children working in groups is the most efficient, practical and successful way to impart knowledge. You doubt me? Then I’m guessing you haven’t tried The Ultimate Teaching Technique.

Oh, you have? It didn’t work? No matter. Try again. Fail better.

Whatever. The purpose of this post is not to rehash old arguments or retread well-trodden teaching tropes. No, my aim is to share a revelation I had during an INSET session yesterday. The speaker was sharing Alan McLean’s idea of the 3As needed to create what he calls the Motivated School: Affiliation (how much do you belong?), Agency (how much can/will you do yourself?) and Autonomy (to what extent are you controlling your learning journey?) For more on this please peruse Zoë Elder’s magnificent Marginal Learning Gains site.

I was particularly taken with the ideas for creating affiliation with classes. We’ve all had ‘great’ classes where the children will eat from the palms of our hands and turn educational cartwheels on request. Likewise, we’ve all suffered the sink group: that dysfunctional bunch who struggle to sit in a chair without battering each other about the head and neck and speculating about the sexual proclivities of their mothers. The thought of ‘doing’ groupwork with such children is off-putting to say the least. And then it hit me: regardless of how we choose to teach, all classes are groups and therefore all teaching is group work. Any attempt to deny or ignore this simple truth is at best benignly burying your head in your own ideological sand, but is more likely to be a sure-fire way to cock-up each and every lesson with that ‘tricky’ group in an increasingly spectacular fashion.

A new generation of Total Teachers?

Maybe, I thought in a delirium of end of term tiredness, teaching should somehow embody the philosophy of the Dutch football team circa 1972. Total Football was about (and forgive my shaky gasp of sports metaphors) every player being technically proficient enough to play in any position on the pitch. What if every teacher approached every lesson and every class with the understanding that, what ever else they were planning to do, teaching is de facto group work: Total Groupwork (or Total Teaching?)

Maybe this observation seems banal. Maybe it is banal, but it got me thinking thusly: effective group work takes planning and preparation to ensure its success. Whereas it may appear, at least to the untrained eye, that a charismatic teacher can command a room’s attention with little more than a sketchy knowledge of the curriculum and few well chosen words. But even here we’re only seeing the tip of the teaching iceberg.

This is particularly apposite in light of the Baron Wilshaw von Ofsted’s recent speech to the RSA where he stated that inspectors, “should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three-part lesson; an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives with a plenary at the end and so on and so forth.” In fact he went so far as to endorse a ‘didactic style’ of teaching if it works. “What works,” he said, is, “what’s good.”

Lecturing effectively requires as much skill and hard work as any other approach to teaching, it’s just that the effort often seems invisible – sometimes even to the teacher themselves. You see, this style of teaching will only work with a ‘good’ group. I don’t care who you are; if you pitch up in front of group of south London teenagers they are unlikely to hang on your every word; chances are they’re not going to learn much from you. Why? Because of a lack of affiliation. A lack of trust and belonging. Where this doesn’t exist, teaching is impossible. Trust is a prerequisite for any academic progress to be made. So, what is it that makes a good group?

Before we discuss that, let’s briefly have a look at its nemesis, the ‘bad’ group. Old Andrew deftly describes how bad groups are created here. He says, “When you believe that behaviour results from your negative disposition you can create a cycle of personal destruction. A class will be unpleasant to you. You will become upset. You will blame yourself for becoming upset. You will focus on changing your behaviour not the class’s. They will see that you will not stand up for yourself, and your attempts to but a brave face on being mistreated will be seen as weakness. They will behave worse. Lesson by lesson it will get worse, and no matter how positive you are they will behave worse and hate you more.” True enough.

The obvious answer is not, contrary to much misguided advice given to poor, benighted NQTs, to simply plan wonderful, engaging lessons (although this clearly helps) it is to be an absolute fascist about rules and consequences. I was recently observed teaching a ‘good’ group by an NQT and was staggered by the insight of his feedback. He said in an email to me, “you have a Zen Buddhist attitude – calm and relaxed, but you can feel that if students mess with you they will see a storm.” Quite right. As an experienced teacher, even though I started a new school this year, the kids I teach have a certain amount of trust for me. They work out very quickly that I will hold them account for their behaviour, but that if a certain level of compliance is achieved we can move very quickly into building relationships which promotes the kind of behaviour for learning which we are expected to show case in our lessons.

Enough of digression and self-congratulation. My point is that however much I might value behaviour for learning I am also a stickler. The most effective first step in creating affiliation in your classroom is having clear rules and expectations. When everyone understands these rules and accepts you as the authority figure in your classroom then you can relax a bit.

Zoë Elder (author of the wonderful and beautiful Full on Learning) recently talked to me about the balance needed between relationships and communication. She says that although negative communication can destroy relationships, if the communication does not allow for criticism to be heard then the relationships will overwhelm the teachers’ ability to teach. Equally, the communication must be right in order for functional relationships to develop. This is what goes wrong for all those well-meaning NQTs  whose struggles and suffering we read about on the TES forums: their desperate attempts to do the right thing and please their students is sadly self-destructive.

To create a climate in which effective group work (teaching) can occur I suggest the following steps:

1. Lay out minimal expectations that every student must conform to

Rules are your friend. But following rules blindly can be difficult so start by explaining why you’re a fascist about trainers (or whatever). You must insist that every student follows the school’s rules on uniform, mobile phones, chewing gum etc. Failure to do so will not only undermine all your colleagues but will also mark you out as a soft touch. This should also include a seating plan from which you do not deviate no matter the pressure. If you are defied on any of these things you must make a stand, even if it ruins your carefully crafted lesson. Follow up on whatever consequences you set out: once they get the idea that you won’t do what you’ve said you’ll do you’re finished. If you work in a half way decent school you will be supported in these endeavours. If you don’t, either find some allies or get out as quickly as you can!

2. Be a human being

Stay calm and on message until they start to comply; it will get better. Kids are inherently funny so laugh at their jokes and at yourself. You need to find reasons to like them. Pretend that every group is your favourite group and it will start to come true. Once the rules are established you can do away with most of ’em and concentrate on teaching with all the flair and verve you possess.

3. Have massively high expectations

I try to teach every student as if I believe they can get an A*. Obviously this boundless optimism needs to be tempered by reality but if they don’t achieve I’m disappointed with myself. I certainly don’t mean that you should let the less able flail – this is where creating agency comes in. If you believe kids can achieve the highest standards they’ll surprise themselves. Ron Berger says that if a student’s work isn’t perfect it isn’t finished yet.

4. Give them a choice

Not about everything and not all the time but allowing students an element of autonomy helps students feel that they’re in control. I like the idea of allowing students to choose at least one of the following; the task (a bit radical), who they work with, how much time they have, or what the outcome will look like. Like the best restaurants, a limited choice is best. An overly extensive menu creates crippling indecision but list of two or three interesting choices is perfect.

Half term marking piles up

Half term marking piles up

5. Be consistent

This is the tough bit. The day-to-day grind of a teacher’s work load would be daunting to the likes of Sisyphus. The good news is that doing all this most of the time of is enough. If students are used to you checking their uniform, you won’t have to: they’ll just do it. If students are used to you marking their books, you can afford to miss a week or two at the end of term when you’re feeling tired. If students are used to you delivering interesting lessons they’ll forgive you the occasional lapse. In fact, if you can offer them a ratio of 1 excellent lesson for every three standards ones they’ll be pretty chuffed.

And there you have it: a sane, rational argument for Total Teaching.

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10 Responses to Total Teaching: every lesson is group work

  1. Cherryldrabble says:

    Well written and as you say, a rationalised argument for why all teaching is group work. It’s just a bigger group than we usually refer to but the principle is the same.

  2. learningspy says:

    Thanks Cherryl – hope I get up your way some time soon.

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