Top Ten Group Work Strategies

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If I am continually vexed by any one question in education it is ‘how can we enhance student motivation?‘ Of course, I do not have the answer, and if there is one it is multi-faceted, complex and, frankly, not going to be solved in this blog post! From my position as a classroom teacher, I am always on the look out for those strategies that create a state when students are motivated and in their element, where they work furiously without even realising they are doing so, without realising the clock is ticking down to the end of the lesson. There is no better compliment than when students question how long there is left and express genuine surprise at how fast time has passed, and that they have actually enjoyed that lesson!

My, admittedly non-scientific, observations are that many of the times students are in ‘flow‘, or their element, in my lessons is when they are collaborating in group work. Why is this then? I believe that we are obviously social beings and we naturally learn in such groups (not always effectively it must be said), but that, more importantly, when working in a group we are able to correct, support, encourage, question and develop ideas much more effectively. The power of the group, guided by the expertise of the teacher, accelerates learning, makes it richer and demands a learning consensus that can push people beyond their habitual assumptions.

Don’t get me wrong, there are pitfalls and obstacles to group work. This constructivist approach should build upon expert teacher led pedagogy – ensuring that students have a good grounding in the relevant knowledge before undertaking in-depth group work. Group work can also be beset by issues in many nuanced forms: whether it is subtle intellectual bullying, where the student who shouts loudest prevails; or the encouragement of mediocrity and laziness, as students let others do all the work; or simply by poor, distracting behaviour. Another issue is ‘group think’ miscomprehension – indeed, how does prejudice flourish if not in social groups? Yet, this failure is often great for learning as long as the teacher can illuminate the error of their ways. Of course, no teaching strategy is foolproof and plain good teaching should remedy many of the potential ills of group work, just as good teaching can make more traditional teacher-led ‘direct instruction’ wholly engaging and effective.

I am intrigued by the idea of ‘social scaffolding‘ (Vygotsky) – the concept that most of our learning is undertaken in group situations, where we learn through dialogue and debate with others, not simply by listening to that voice in our head! That being said, I am not talking teachers out of a classroom here. The role of the teacher in devising and planning a successful group task takes skill, rigour and utter clarity and precision. Students need to be clear about a whole host of things: from their role, to the purpose of the task and the parameters of expected outcomes to name but a few. Teachers need to keep groups on track, intervene appropriately to improve learning and regularly regain student focus. Teachers have a pivotal role in guiding the group work at every stage. Group work certainly isn’t the lazy option: it takes skill in the planning and the execution, and sometimes, despite our best laid plans, it still fails. That shouldn’t put us off – aren’t all teaching and learning strategies subject to such risks?

If I was to define a simple and straight-forward basis for the rules for group work it would be:

– Have clearly defined tasks, with sharp timings and with the appropriate tools organised
– Have clearly defined group roles
– Have clear ground rules for talk, listening and fair allocation of workload etc.
– Target your support and interventions throughout the task, but make them interdependent of one another, not dependent upon you
– Always be prepared to curtail group work if students don’t follow your high expectations.

So here it is, my entirely subjective top ten strategies for group work that I believe to be effective (ideas for which I must thank a multitude of sources):

1. ‘Think-pair-share’ and ‘Think-pair-square’.

Well, no-one said this top ten had to be original! This strategy is one of those techniques that we employ so readily that we can almost forget about it, it is simply so automatic for most teachers; yet, because of that we can easily forget it in our planning. We need to use it regularly because it is the very best of scaffolded learning; it almost always facilitates better quality feedback by allowing proper thinking time and for students to sound out their ideas and receive instantaneous feedback from peers. ‘Think-pair-square’ adds a touch of added flavour, involving linking two pairs together (to form the ‘square’ to share their ideas before whole class feedback). Once more, it is about adding depth to ideas, stimulating debate and collaborative thinking. I defer to this blog post by @headguruteacher for the skinny on ‘Think-pair-share’ here.

2. Snowballing or the Jigsaw method

Similar to the ‘square’ approach mentioned in ‘Think-Pair-Square’, the ‘snowballing’ activity is another simple but very effective way of building upon ideas by starting with small groups and expanding the groups in a structured way. As the metaphor of the snowball suggests, you can begin with an individual response to a question; followed by then pairing up students up; then creating a four and so on. It does allow for quick, flexible group work that doesn’t necessarily require much planning, but does keep shaping viewpoints and challenging ‘answers’ is a constructive fashion.

The ‘jigsaw method’ is slightly more intricate. David Didau describes here how it is the “ultimate teaching method”, but that it benefits greatly from careful planning. Put simply, when researching a topic, like the causes of the Second World War, each member of a group is allocated an area for which they need to become the ‘expert‘, such as ‘the impact of the Treaty of Versailles’, or ‘issues with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary’ for example. With five or six ‘Home‘ groups identified, the ‘experts‘ then leave that group to come together to pool their expertise on the one topic; they question one another and combine research, ideas and their knowledge. Then each ‘expert‘ returns to their ‘home‘ group to share their findings. It is a skilful way of varying group dynamics as well as scaffolding learning.

3. Debating (using clear rules)

As you probably know, our own inspiring leader, Michael Gove, was the President of the Oxford Union. Clearly, these ancient skills of rhetoric and debate have seen him rise to dizzying heights. Perhaps we need to teach debating with great skill if we are to produce citizens who can debate with the best of them…and with Michael Gove! The premise of a debate, and its value in enriching the learning of logic, developing understanding and the simultaneous sharpening and opening our minds, is quite obvious so I will not elaborate. If you are ever stuck for a debate topic then this website will be of great use: http://idebate.org/debatabase. The Oxford rules model is an essential model for the classroom in my view. It provides a clear structure and even a level of formality which is important, provide coherence and greater clarity to the debate. The rules, familiar steps though they are for many, are as follows:

Four speakers in each team (for and against the motion)
First speaker introduces all the ideas that team has generated
Second speaker outlines two or three more ideas in some depth
Third speaker outlines two or three ideas in some depth
Fourth speaker criticises the points made by the other team
Each individual speaker has two minutes to speak (or more of course), with protected time of thirty seconds at the beginning or the end
The rest of the team is the ‘Floor‘ and can interject at any time by calling out ‘Point of Information‘ and standing. The speaker can accept or reject an interjection.

You may wish to have the other groups work as feedback observers on the debate being undertaking (a little like Socratic circles – number 8). This has the benefit of keeping the whole class engaged and actively listening to the debate.

4. Project Based Learning/Problem Based Learning

I have to admit I have only ever undertaken project style work on a small scale, but in the last year I have been startled by the quality of work I have observed in project based learning across the world. The principals of Project Based Learning are key: such as identifying real audiences and purposes for student work (a key factor in enhancing motivation); promoting interdependent student work, often subtly guided by the teacher at most stages; letting students undertake roles and manage the attendant challenges that arise; learning is most often integrated and spans subject areas; and students constructing their own questions and knowledge. Truly the best guide is to survey these great examples:

http://www.hightechhigh.org/schools/HTHI/ The curriculum here is founded upon the PBL model.
http://brookfieldcyclingproject.blogspot.co.uk/ A brilliant PE based PBL.
http://deeplearning.edublogs.org/2012/12/02/meet-the-ancestors/ A great Art centred project.

The Innovation Unit has also produced this brilliant must-read guide to PBL in great depth here.

‘Problem based learning’ is clearly related to the project model, but it explicitly starts with a problem to be solved. It is based primarily upon the model from medicine – think Dr House (although he is hardly a team player!). David Didau sagely recommends that the teacher, or students in collaboration, find a specifically local problem – this raises the stakes of the task. Clearly, in Mathematics, real problem based learning can be a central way to approach mathematical challenges in a collaborative way; in Science or Philosophy, the options to tackle ethical and scientific problems are endless. There is criticism of this approach – that students struggle with the ‘cognitive load’ without more of a working memory. Ideally, this learning approach follows some high quality direct instruction, and teacher led worked examples, to ensure that students have effective models to work from and some of the aforementioned working memory.

5. Group Presentations

I would ideally label this strategy: ‘questions, questions, questions‘ as it is all about creating, and modelling, a culture of enquiry by asking students questions about a given topic, rather than didactically telling them the answer – then helping shape their research. The teacher leads with a ‘big question‘; then it is taken on by groups who (given materials, such as books, magazines, essays, iPads, laptops, or access to the library or an ICT suite etc.) have to interrogate the question, forming their own sub-set of questions about the question/ topic. They then source and research the key information, before finally agreeing to the answers to the questions they had themselves formed. The crucial aspect about presentations is giving students enough time to make the presentation worthwhile, as well as allocating clear roles. High quality presentations take time to plan, research and execute. Personally, I find the timekeeper role a waste of time (I can do that for free!), but other roles, such as leader, designer and scribe etc. have value. Also, the teaching needs to be carefully planned so the entire presentation is not reliant solely upon any one person or piece of technology. Developing a shared understanding of the outcome and the different parameters of the presentation is key: including features like banning text on PowerPoints; or making it an expectation that there is some element of audience participation; to agreeing what subject specific language should be included. The devil is in the detail!

6. ‘Devise the Display’

I have a troubled relationship with displays! I very rarely devise my own display as I think displays become wallpaper far too soon considering the effort taken to provide them – like newspapers, they become unused within days. I much prefer a ‘working wall‘, that can be constantly changed or updated (or a ‘learning continuum’ for an entire topic when can be periodically added to each lesson). That being said, I do think there is real high quality learning potential in the process of students devising and creating wall displays. It is great formative feedback to devise a wall display once you are well under way a topic. It makes the students identify and prioritise the key elements of their knowledge and the skills they are honing.

I find the most valuable learning is actually during the design ideas stage.You can ‘snowball’ design ideas with the students; beginning individually, before getting groups to decide collaboratively on their design; then having a whole class vote. I do include stipulations for what they must include, such as always including worked examples. Then, the sometimes chaotic, but enjoyable activity it to create the display. I always aim for the ‘60 Minute Makeover‘ approach – quick and less painful (it also makes you less precious about the finer details)! I think they also learn a whole host of valuable skills involving team work, empathy and not to annoy me by breaking our wall staplers! I think it is then important to not let any display fester and waste, but to pull it down and start afresh with a new topic. I know this strategy does put some people off, because it can be like organised chaos, but if everyone has a clear role and responsibility the results can be amazing. [Warning – some designs can look like they have been produced by Keith Richards on a spectacular acid trip!]

7. Gallery Critique

This stems from the outstanding work of on Berger. Both a teacher and a craftsman himself, Berger explains the value of critique as rich feedback in his brilliant book ‘The Ethic of Excellence‘. It can be used during the draft/main process or as a summative task. This strategy does have some specific protocols students should follow. The work of the whole group should be displayed in a gallery style for a short time. Students are expected to first undertake a short silent viewing (making notes to reflect is also useful here). The students make comments on the work – post it notes being ideal for this stage. Then the next step is a group discussion of ‘what they noticed‘ in particular, with debate and discussion encouraged – of course, the feedback should be both kind and constructive. The next step for discussion is talking about ‘what they liked‘, evaluating the work. The final stage has the teacher synthesise viewpoints and express their own; before ensuring students make notes and reflect upon useful observations for making improvements.

8. Socratic Talk

I have spoken about this strategy before here. What is key is that like the debating rules above, a clear and defined structure is in place, particularly with ‘Socratic circles‘ which embeds feedback and debate in a seamless way. It takes some skill in teaching students how to talk in this fashion, but once taught, it can become a crucial tool in the repertoire. In my experience, some of the most sensitive insights have emerged from this strategy and the listening skills encouraged are paramount and have an ongoing positive impact. It also allows for every student to have a role and quality feedback becomes an expectation.

9. Talking Triads

Another simple, but highly effective strategy. It is a strategy that gets people to explore a chosen topic, but with a really rigorous analysis of ideas and views. The triad comprises of a speaker, a questioner and a recorder/analyst. You can prepare questions, or you can get the questioner and the analyst to prepare questions whilst the speaker prepares or reflects upon potential answers. This can be done in front of the class as a gallery of sorts, or you can have all triads working simultaneously. If they do work simultaneously, then a nice addition is to raise your hand next to a particular triad, which signals for other groups to stop and listen whilst that specific triad continues, allowing for some quality listening opportunities.

10. Mastery Modelling

This involves a form of formative assessment from students, whereat the teacher gives a group a series of models, both exemplar models and lesser models, including some with common errors that students would likely identify. The students need to do a critical appraisal of the these models as a group and identify their summary assessment of the models first, before then devising and presenting a ‘mastery model’ that is a composite exemplar model of work. This strategy works in pretty much every subject, with the subject being either an essay, a piece of art, or a mathematical problem. This presentation should include an explicit focus upon the steps taken leading to create the ‘mastery model‘ during the feedback – this unveils the process required for mastery for the whole class.

Useful links:

A great research paper that analyses group work and its importance:
‘Toward a social pedagogy of classroom group work’
By Peter Blatchford, Peter Kutnick, Ed Baines, and Maurice Galton

An excellent National Strategies booklet from back in the day when the DfE was interested in pedagogy. I particularly like the ‘different grouping criteria’/’size of grouping’ tables:
Pedagogy and Practice: Teaching and Learning in Secondary Schools Unit 10: Group work

Nice step by step guide to the implementation and the delivery of group work
Implementing Group Work in the Classroom

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About huntingenglish

I am Director of Learning and Research at Huntington Secondary School, York. I have taught English (including a bit of Media Studies) for over a decade. If it is tragic and gothic, laced with humour and bitter truths then I'll teach it! I have had the great privilege to have written a book, 'Teach Now! Becoming a Great English Teacher', edited by the brilliant Geoff Barton, and I am writing another for Routledge, entitled, 'The Confident Teacher'. I am Project Lead of the RISE (Research-leads Improving Students' Education) Project. An EEF funded randomized controlled trial to evaluate if and how a Research-lead can improve outcomes for students. I am a proud member of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) Executive Board at York University. I am also a proud member of the ResearchEd Advisory Panel. I write regularly for the TES and Teach Secondary magazine. My first book, 'Teach Now! Becoming A Great English Teacher' was released by Routledge in 2014 and my next book, entitled 'The Confident Teacher' will be out at the end of 2015.

17 responses to “Top Ten Group Work Strategies”

  1. teachingbattleground says :

    Trouble with this is that your starting assumption, that we
    are more effective in groups, is not something with much evidence
    for it. Psychologists have been noting the reverse for 100 years:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ringelmann_effect

  2. David Didau (@LearningSpy) says :

    Hi Alex – another cracking compendium! I wanted to make a
    couple of contributions. Firstly, maybe critical skills should be
    included as a distinct group work approach. Much of the critical
    skills methodology (group roles) has leaked into the mainstream
    consciousness but much hasn’t. I write about it here:
    http://learningspy.co.uk/2011/07/11/so-what-are-learning-spies/
    Also, I’m convinced that what you’re describing in this post (and
    what most teachers and students who object to ‘group work’ are
    actually objecting to) is ‘extended small group work’. My view is
    that all classes are groups and therefore all teaching is group
    work:
    http://learningspy.co.uk/2012/10/27/total-groupwork-all-teaching-is-groupwork/
    Thank you for another superbly useful post, David

  3. Sam Boswell says :

    Great post – thanks.
    Can I do a Nigel to raise the volume to 11?

    In Classroom Management Strategies (CMS) there’s a strategy called “set” where a teacher employs a device – prop, paradox, image – for attention-grabbing at the start of a lesson. The CMS program has been rolled out across W.Australia for classroom teachers to engage in non-evaluative reflective practice, and it’s also used in teacher training at universities; best centrally endorsed professional learning I’ve been involved in. Philosophy is based on notions that any student at any time has the potential to misbehave, so pedagogy is cued to engagement of student interest through effectively tailoring instructional strategies (the other coursework component is prevention of misbehaviour through various low key management techniques such as non-verbals, proximity, being polite and with-it-ness).

    Back to set: I’ve used nothing more than an empty box as an engagement device at the start of a lesson on advertising along with the prompt “What’s in the box?” This set generated a week’s inquiry based around advertising conventions, marketing strategies, demographics, and interdependent collaborative group work to deliver a product for evaluation. As a coach of this method of teacher training, I’ve learned how a colleague used set to introduce a class on sex education using their own wedding photo album to share narratives with students about love based on their personal experience.

    Goal setting or investigating mindset? Try a hula hoop with different shape/ weight balls to engage students in predicting which ball/ combination choice thrown 3 times will offer the highest success rate in attempting to have the ball land inside the hula hoop and remain there. Deconstruct the group’s thinking after predictions are tallied and testing conducted. What happens when this is performed in public as a skill-based test? Why? How is this similar to our failure when attempting goals? Who volunteered to throw? Who held back? Why?

    Maybe it’s a 10.5 because I’m piggy-backing on your number 5 – group presentations. As with anything we attempt with students in classrooms, the critical element seems to be a willingness to take risks and experiment. Set is definitely worth playing around with on order to get the most out of group work, especially when you want to enhance motivation.

  4. Christopher Waugh says :

    This is a very useful summary of approaches available for providing structure and purpose to group work. I thought I might comment on the (implicit) idea that, in addition to the potential ‘curriculum learning’ benefits of working in groups – the social benefits of our creating situations where students can learn effectively in collaboration with others is an increasingly important function of the classroom.

    By engaging our students in many of the approaches identified above, we are also assisting them to develop the interpersonal skills that they need to be able to function well in all manner of collaborative situations. Whether we like it or not (and, I hazard to say, whether select psychologists approve of it or not) there are so many situations in life where people must work collaboratively to achieve a result – or where they must function as a useful part of a group or community – and the skills they learn in our classroom are of great importance in the development of their capacity in these areas.

    The strength of learning how to communicate, contribute and critique in independent group situations in the context of meaningful school learning is that it provides a purpose for becoming better at working with others. This seems an efficient and logical use of the ‘group’ aspect of classroom time.

    This is especially true now that there are an increasing number of tools and resources available to students that enable them to engage in independent scholarship – and often to seek and receive individual feedback – in their solitary time.

    Thanks for this useful item – and, yes, Mr Learningspy, I wholeheartedly agree that the whole class is a group too!

    Chris

  5. misslynn2 says :

    Just to let you know that I have nominated you for the Liebster blog award. Keep up the quality blogging! http://whatthe42.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/liebster-blog-award/

  6. Elise says :

    I found this discussion very helpful. Although I am still boggled at my classes behavior and reaction today to a project that I wanted them to complete after a book we read. The class is an ESE learning strategies class that is a 100 minute block. The strategy I am teaching is The Fundamentals of Sentence Writing. Engaging these students is a major task. Yesterday, I wanted to “engage” students by introducing their project. Needless to say, even after I modeled what the project entailed and saying that they could work in pairs as they have on other class material, there was not much engagement at all. To top it off the AP was doing a walk through and they all acted as if I had never had them work in pairs before. I kept encouraging them to work and walked around offering assistance and clarifying the instructions that I had written on the board. As an ESE teacher we are supposed to differentiate instruction. I am mind boggled. Yes, I am working in a Title 1 school. When I asked the students if they hand in incomplete work in all their classes they said, “Yes,” the teachers all give them partial credit. So, if this is the level of work they are used to producing and getting credit for then why should I expect more? For the two students that made an effort I modified the assignment and did get at least something resembling a project. I wasn’t angry but a bit saddened by their attitude and work ethic when I am expected as a teacher to set them on a path of higher inquiry and possible higher learning. I am glad that I took a risk with them instead doing the minimum. But I wonder if “group work” is really the answer.

    • huntingenglish says :

      I think a balanced diet of approaches is key – no one strategy or approach works unequivocally, otherwise we would all be doing it! The key thing seems to be the standards of the group. What are the sanctions if they don’t complete their task? A relelntless and rigorous routine applied to your pedagogy, including scaffolding group work, is required, with similar routines if they fail to complete work that reaches your expectations. Here, we can detain students, contact parents etc. and I would heartily recommend you follow all such sanctions to demand standards. Frankly, if they don’t have stsndards it will hardly matter what great pedagogy you utilise.

  7. missbexm says :

    Reblogged this on English Teacher's Toolbox and commented:
    An interesting read.

  8. Piers Young (@piersyoung) says :

    Really good overview, thank you. Related, albeit tangentially, is this post by Andy on assessing groupwork. Thought it was useful

  9. taviaallan says :

    Reblogged this on taviaallan and commented:
    Great thinking on group work.

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