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Is group work all it’s cracked up to be?

By Mark Richards,

24 Jan 2020

It's getting on for two decades now since group work become the 'done thing'.

All of a sudden, rote learning and desks in neat rows were out, and kinaesthetic, mind-friendly learning and working in groups was very much in. And over the last 20 years or so teachers have had it in drilled into them that outstanding teaching needs to feature group work at some point.

The worst by-product of this infatuation with group learning has seen teachers desperately trying to shoehorn a group activity into a lesson because they think they should.

Even worse are the ill-advised lesson observation templates designed by SLTs that proudly have a box for 'group work' - as if ticking it is a prerequisite for half-decent teaching. But now some people are beginning to question whether group work is actually all it is cracked up to be, and wondering whether the time has come for teachers to stop using it as if it were a default setting for the classroom. Is it time we stopped using group work? So, why is it is that some professionals are now calling time on group work.

Well, a combination of continued pressure on schools and an education climate driven by and dominated by results, results and results; and the demands of new GCSEs might be to blame. Now rote learning is making a return in some circles and some schools are being forced to focus on getting the job done.

Group work seems almost superfluous – a distraction.

Group work is being seen as style over substance. The problem with group work In truth, group work has probably never been the silver bullet and cure for all ills that some would have you believe it to be.

It takes a considerable amount of painstaking planning to get right.

It takes remarkably little for things to go wrong and for group activities to unravel and fall apart. Group work can cause behaviour problems and can actually limit students’ understanding.

Almost inevitably, one student in a group will take charge and dominate.

You can also almost bet your mortgage on several students in a class being perfectly content in letting other members of their groups do all the work for them. Teachers need to take a step back and analyse the impact on learning of employing group work and ask themselves: Would the impact really have been less had the students worked individually? Group work creates a lot of noise.

Noise, per se, isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it is the sound of discussion, engagement and learning. But is the noise of group work really those things? Should this spell the end of group work? No, of course not.

There is still plenty of merit in well-planned, carefully-crafted group learning activities.

However, group work that isn’t meticulously planned and skilfully managed is definitely detrimental to learning. As with all teaching strategies, group work should never just be used for group work’s sake.

There will be occasions when group work will be absolutely the best way to enhance learning – but it should be saved for those moments alone.