Professor Maurice Galton, from the University of Cambridge, examines the benefits of group work and its possible contribution to improving the current classroom climate

Over the years considerable empirical evidence has been gathered, mainly in the United States, that group work can be a very effective teaching strategy for helping pupils of all ages to learn. Not only do pupils do better in terms of academic achievement when cooperative structures for learning are compared to competitive and individualistic ones, but there are often other important gains relating to social cohesion, motivation and improvements in pupils’ self-esteem. Despite such evidence, the use of cooperative groups in English schools continues to be a ‘neglected art’. In primary school, children are still mainly seated in groups but work on whole-class tasks is followed by individual ‘seat work’. The evidence at secondary level is somewhat patchy but the official evaluation of the Key Stage 3 strategy found little work in groups even though students rated such activity very highly. In England, results from an interview-based study of secondary school teachers’ attitudes towards pupil grouping showed that the structure and use of groups was largely determined by practical factors such as the availability of equipment and other material. Most lessons followed a standard pattern consisting of a whole-class teaching opening phase followed by group or individual task work and a further burst of whole-class activity. For example, English subject groups were structured around the availability of written materials rather than attempting to bring together a suitable mix of pupils to facilitate discussion. In science, the group size was mostly determined by dividing the class by the amount of available specialist equipment. Overall, the rationale offered for pupil grouping appeared to be dominated by issues of classroom organisation rather than by some specific learning objective.

Reluctance to do group work

Among the factors which may cause practitioners to use group work sparingly is the perception by some teachers of a loss of control over the learning environment. It is often difficult to be certain that talk among pupils in groups is productive, or even on task, and this compares unfavourably with the situation that usually pertains during whole-class discussions where pupils speak only when requested to do so by the teacher. It is also sometimes difficult to decide on the appropriateness of the task and the degree of structure required; whether, for example, there is need for interdependence so that no group can complete a task without a contribution from all members, or whether more open-ended, discovery-based activities can produce more higher-order thinking exchanges. Size and composition of groups can also create difficulties. Teachers tend to see the need to mix abilities or to include pupils with behaviour problems as a further obstacle to cooperative learning rather than seeing the use of groups as a means of solving such difficulties. While, in the main, the research provides evidence of gains for all groups of students some studies report that gifted pupils were less attracted to working cooperatively in mixed-ability groups. Views about the benefits for disruptive pupils are also mixed. Some reported positive socialising effects for such children as a result of cooperative group activities, while others claim that aggression or withdrawal is a more typical response. These findings don’t take into account the effects of certain personality factors.

Research initiatives

Until recently, the case for greater use of group work in UK classrooms and its possible contribution in helping to improve the current classroom climate had still to be demonstrated empirically. Previous research on the aftereffects of transfer has demonstrated that over the past decade pupils’ enjoyment of school and attitudes to core subjects have declined in Year 7. These dips have affected both academically ‘gifted’ pupils as well as those who exhibit anti-learning, anti-school tendencies and also extend into Year 8 which has been described by students as a ‘fallow year’. The launch of the TLRP (Teaching and Learning Research Programme) initiative in 2002 provided funds to address some of the above concerns. The Social Pedagogic Research into Grouping (SPRinG) Project set out to compare the effectiveness of teaching ideas and concepts through the use of cooperative groups rather than through whole-class discussion. The secondary phase (KS3) was undertaken at Cambridge while two other institutions (Brighton and IOE) located their studies in primary schools. Here, for reasons of space, the KS3 results will be discussed although similar findings emerged elsewhere in the research.

English, maths and science

At Key Stage 3, English, mathematics and science teachers received training in how to train pupils to work cooperatively in groups. The training concentrated on four aspects; setting group rules, improving talk, maintaining activity and decision making by consensus. Teachers were then randomly assigned to pairs in each subject and four topics were chosen from the KS3 syllabus. In science for example the chosen topics were particles, electric circuits, forces and living cells. For each topic one of the pair taught the cognitive content (concepts, ideas etc) through class discussion while the partner put pupils into groups. This decision was again decided on the toss of a coin so that if one of the pair was teaching particles and forces in groups the partner used group work for the two remaining topics. A similar procedure was used in mathematics (number patterns, interpreting data, ratio and areas/volumes); in English content was not controlled but activities centred on different kinds of writing (imaginative versus descriptive). Pupils were tested at the beginning of the topic and again at the end using the same test. Teachers with experience of marking GCSE were used to level all scores. The magnitude of the differences between the pre- and the post-test in all three subjects always favoured the classes where pupils were taught in groups. The greatest gains were in English for imaginative writing and in mathematics for the topics requiring greater higher-order thinking (number patterns and interpretation data). These differences were of the order of half a year’s progress. In science differences were not so marked but still positive. We were not able to stop the decline in attitudes towards school and core subjects but compared to the dips found in the transfer studies they were much smaller. More importantly, we found that, providing pupils felt the groups worked well (respecting each other’s opinions; everyone getting a turn, etc), the biggest effects were on pupils who initially exhibited the most anti-school, anti-learning dispositions. This is a potentially important finding, given the concerns expressed by teachers about current classroom behaviour. We also observed one lesson for each pair during each topic. We found that levels of distraction (total and partial) were marginally less in the groups. More importantly, levels of high-order cognitive discourse (raising questions, offering explanations, giving reasons, etc) were far higher during group discussion. To appreciate this finding it needs to be understood that in our observations of whole-class teaching the group consisted of every pupil so that all such interactions were recorded. In the case of groups, we selected two at random, so that in a class of 24 pupils, grouped in fours, we had, in theory, only a one in three chance of recording such discourse. Thus the dice were loaded against the groups. We recorded our observations at 30 second intervals and if the conversation between the same participants extended beyond this time interval we classified it as ‘sustained’. In every case there were more sustained conversations in the groups compared to the class. The extreme case was in science where during class discussions we recorded no sustained conversations. We believe that the results in favour of groups would have been even more favourable if teachers had followed the training procedures more faithfully. Theory suggests that during the early stages of group work it is important to brief the class on what was expected of the groups and at the end of the lesson find time to debrief the class as to how the groups worked and what might be done next time to improve performance. Teachers rarely carried out these debriefing sessions if it conflicted with the need to round off the topic. In science, for example, they would spend the last part of the lesson collating results and working out solutions rather than debriefing and leaving the working out to the next lesson. One reason for this was the belief that ‘all this was attended to in PSHE lessons,’ so that ‘pupils already knew how to work in groups.’ However, the emphasis in the PSHE sessions is on the social aspects of group work (learning to cooperate, to manage conflict, etc), not on the cognitive aspects. To be really effective in academic subjects group tasks must be cognitively challenging and the debriefing sessions must be concerned with helping pupils to develop effective cooperative strategies for selecting and evaluating best solutions rather than asking whether ‘we worked well together’ and whether ‘everyone had a turn’. Another impediment was that many teachers intervened too quickly. At interview pupils told us that they wanted to be left alone at first until they had worked out a ‘group position’. Only then were they happy to have their views challenged by the teacher. Too early an intervention usually meant the group simply accepted the teacher’s suggestions which they described as a ‘take over’.

Group working in practice

At first, teachers found that setting up groups presented many difficulties. There was the disruptive student who blocked progress, the loner who didn’t wish to participate and problems over the size and mix of groups. Over time, however, solutions were found. Developing and enforcing the group rules, giving disruptive pupils key maintenance roles, allowing loners to do their ‘own thing’ and then combining individual contributions into a joint presentation, making certain that there was a mix of abilities, limiting groups to not more than five pupils and starting pupils in pairs were all strategies that, over time, improved the classroom climate and produced excellent results. As one of the participating teachers said at the final meeting of the project: ‘I used to think having to do groups was the problem – now I know it’s the solution to my problems.’

Further reading:

  • Baines, E, Blatchford, P and Kutnick, P (2003) ‘Changes in grouping practice over primary and secondary school’, International Journal of Educational Research, 39 (1): 9-34.
  • Gillies, R and Ashman, A (eds) (2003) Cooperative Learning: The Social and Intellectual Outcomes of Learning in Groups, London: Routledge/Falmer.
  • Kutnick, P, Sebba, J, Blatchford, P, Galton, M and Thorp, J with MacIntyre, H and Berdondini, L (2005) The Effects of Pupil Grouping: Literature Review, Research Report 688, Nottingham: DfES Publications.
  • Pell, T, Galton, M, Steward, S, Page, C and Hargreaves, L (2007) ‘Group Work at Key Stage 3: Solving an attitudinal crisis among young adolescents?’ Research Papers in Education, 22 (3): 309-332.