Some key findings from research on how teachers can use groups to boost young people’s achievement

The approaches to groupwork used on the SPRinG (Social Pedagogic Research into Groupwork) project were developed by collaborative discussions with teachers and the evaluation of their classroom activities by teachers and pupils. The focus was on developing an approach that could be fully integrated into the fabric of the school day.

The key messages that emerged were as follows.

1. Ease pupils gently into groupwork
In the early stages of working in groups, it may be best for students to work in twos and threes. At KS2, groupwork was found to be most effective when it involved no more than five pupils. Group sizes need to relate to the age and experience of pupils, as well as to the complexity of the task they undertake.

2. Develop a supportive ethos
It is worth putting time and effort into developing a supportive ethos. A process of briefing and debriefing at the start and end of lessons is useful, so that pupils can reflect on the skills that they need to improve their collaboration.

3. Recognise that skills are involved
Groupwork skills have to be actively developed if students are to communicate effectively through listening, explaining and sharing ideas. ‘We cannot just put children into groups and expect them to work well together.’ ‘Groupwork,’ the researchers found, ‘is unlikely to be successful without a lot of hard work and preparation, and this will need to extend over the course of a school year.’

4. Organise the classroom
Teachers taking part in the project received guidance on classroom-seating arrangements, and characteristics of groups such as their size, composition and stability over time.

5. Address conflicts and assist pupils in resolving their problems
Conflicts need to be addressed if they are not to lie below the surface and inhibit learning. Groupwork is a context which brings emotions to the fore. Without opportunities to experience and develop the skills to handle conflict on their own, students are not going to develop the capacity to do this independently of the teacher.

6. Stay on the sidelines Teachers can best support learning by acting as facilitators. Confronted by dependent and passive learners, teachers need to encourage students to:

  • consult books and other sources of information
  • ask other pupils for help and suggestions
  • take greater responsibility for their own ideas and decisions.

7. Integrate groupwork into the fabric of the school day
Each class taking part in the research project was expected to undertake at least two one-hour groupwork sessions every week.

8. Ensure that groupwork is adopted by the whole school
When teachers work without support from colleagues, the likelihood is that some teachers will not implement groupwork fully.

9. Adapt groupwork to class needs Teachers need to develop the freedom and confidence to take ‘ownership’ of the approach. Adapting grouping strategies for different purposes and tasks is the only way of ensuring that the needs of whatever groups they work with are addressed. This is particularly important when working with pupils who have special needs, or in schools facing challenging circumstances.

The teachers involved in the project felt that their own professional skills and confidence had evolved as a result of taking part in the activities. The development of pupil group skills freed staff from many of their ordinary duties, giving them more time ‘to reflect on, and think strategically about, their teaching.’

10. Teachers need training
Teachers need to internalise a variety of skills to do with problem-solving classroom management and personal relationships before they can instigate effective groupwork in their classrooms. The current one-year PGCE course offers insufficient time for trainees to develop these skills.

Teacher Jodie Corbett on working with a Year 4/5 class: ‘For a few weeks, I and my two colleagues – a teaching assistant and a learning support assistant – observed the children working. We quickly identified the pupils who saw groupwork as a ‘free ride’ and those who would need support. We tried different combinations of children and, following a few tweaks, we had the groups firmly established.

‘Now came the difficult part. We watched and supported groups of children as they argued, shouted and sulked. We were very tempted to split them up, but the researchers said it was important that the children worked through these difficulties with adult support.

‘For a long time, all we could ‘see’ was noise and disruption. But after a while we realised that the noise we could hear was actually productive noise. They weren’t arguing or talking about last night’s EastEnders, they were actively engaged with the work.’ You can find out more about the SPRinG project from:

www.spring-project.org.uk.

There is also information on work with KS3 classrooms at: http://creict.homerton.cam.ac.uk/spring/.

The researchers
Peter Blatchford and Ed Baines, Department of Psychology and Human Development, Institute of Education, University of London
Maurice Galton, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
Peter Kutnick, Education Research Centre, University of Brighton

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