Talk in learning: getting the best out of group work

Author: Sue Cowley
Published: 27/01/2022

Whatever teaching techniques we use in our classrooms, it is important to evaluate how effective they are for different purposes, how well we use them, and how we might learn to use them even better. Group work has had what you might call a ‘bad press’ in recent years. During a speech in 2013, the then Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, described group work as: ‘in practice, children chatting to each other’.

However, learning to work co-operatively is something that plays a crucial part in many subjects. To dismiss the role of talk in learning seems short sighted at best, particularly at a time when there is a strong focus on supporting children’s language development. Building the key oracy skills of both speaking and listening is a vital aspect of the work that teachers do. In the early years, one of the most important things that children are learning is how to socialise and work with their peers. There are some subjects that would be impossible without groups and employers will often talk about the value they place on effective team work.

When and where?

When thinking about how to make the best of the group work that you do in your classroom, the first decision to make is about when and how often to use this format. Think carefully about the topic or subject you are teaching: is group work the best way to teach it, or would individual work be more appropriate? Much of the time in schools, children will be working individually.

At the same time, though, some topics and subjects are best taught almost entirely through the medium of group work. Drama is a great example of this – the only time you would use individual work in drama is when students are writing about a performance, or when they are performing a monologue. The very act of performing a piece of drama is predicated on working in a group. Much the same can be said for team sports within PE – again, one of the key purposes of this kind of activity is to enhance a student’s ability to perform well in a team, alongside other people.

Remember that it is not a case of either/or – you will often have a mix of individual, paired and small group work in a lesson. Look at each task, consider what the learning objective is, and whether the best way to meet this objective would be to do the task individually or in a group. Group work is a useful format for developing a range of what are often referred to as ‘soft skills’ – things such as co-operation, turn taking, communicating and building on the ideas of others. However, group work is also vital for the development of speaking and listening. Speech does not just develop through listening – working co-operatively in a group opens lots of possibilities for us to develop our talk. We can bounce ideas off other people and pick up on the new vocabulary that is used by someone else in the group.

Consider the outcomes you want

When planning for group work, consider the outcomes that are going to be the result of the activity. Where the outcomes are clear and purposeful, your students are more likely to focus and work well in their groups. The outcomes can be varied – a PowerPoint presentation that is created together; a model or product developed by the team; a live performance of some kind, for instance retelling a story. You can greatly increase the incentive for focused group work by having an audience for the end product. This might be as simple as the teacher watching some group performances and using these for an oral assessment. Your class might work together to develop a piece that is going to be presented to an external audience, for instance of parents, or of members of your local community. The school production is a great example of the power of working in groups – not only must the actors co-operate and work together on stage, but the ensemble as a whole must come together to make a success of their show, including lights, stage set, props, and so on, in support of the actors who appear on the stage.

Group structure

Think ahead about the way that you are going to arrange your groups. Consider whether you are best to use random groupings, whether you would be better to carefully choose the students that you put in each group, or whether you plan to allow the students to decide who they work with. There are various pros and cons for each method. If you always insist on a random method of organising groups, your students learn to work with anyone and everyone. However, you can end up with some awkward mixtures of personalities. Where the teacher selects the make-up of the groups, this can work well for having a good spread of personalities and levels of attainment. However, it does rely on you having a good knowledge of how your students tend to operate, which can be difficult in a secondary setting. If you allow students to choose their own groups, this can be helpful in terms of their motivation, but it might also mean they are more likely to go off task. One option is to give your students the chance to work in groups of their own choice, to prove that they can still learn effectively, and to remove that option if they fail to meet your expectations.

Group roles

Consider the kind of different roles that your students will take within a group, and whether you want to allocate these roles, or allow the learners to make the decisions. A great tip is to cast against type within the groups – to ask the quietest learner to act as ‘chair’ of the team, or to ask the student who is normally overly verbal to be responsible for scribing the group’s ideas. Another way to allocate roles is to use a specific method for the group work. For instance, in the ‘triad’ approach, the first student takes on the role of questioner, the second the role of speaker and the third the role of recorder. The students work within these roles before swapping around to take on a different job. High attaining learners can sometimes find group work to be a struggle, because they want to take over the task to get it done ‘properly’. Students can also get frustrated if they are in a group where only some members are keen to work. Think carefully about how you allocate roles in order to avoid this issue.

Group rights and responsibilities

Before you begin any piece of group work, encourage your students to think about their rights and responsibilities within a group work situation. Their rights might include things such as the right to be heard and the right to participate. Their responsibilities offer a counterpoint to their rights – for instance, if they want to be heard, they also have the responsibility to listen. You might write up a class charter on group work, that you ask the students to sign. Make sure that you hold them to their responsibilities by using regular reminders of what has been agreed.

A great way to encourage all students to participate in a group task is to use counters or tokens. Tell students that they must ‘spend’ a token every time they want to make a verbal contribution to the group. You can get very creative with this aspect of group work. For instance, I once met a teacher who had bought a second-hand case full of poker chips, and who used these with his older students. Another teacher told me how she uses Euro coins that the learners must ‘spend’ as they contribute during the task. A very simple method to keep an eye on the number of contributions is to give each student a different-coloured felt tip. They then make a mark on a piece of paper every time they speak. Any kind of token that engages your students and draws them into the idea of making contributions will be helpful.

Group management

Consider how you will manage behaviour while group work is taking place. One key factor you need to consider is how to go about regulating the noise levels in the classroom. Group work can often be a noisy affair, so it is likely that you will need to put some limits in place. If you feel that the class is getting overly loud, you could stop the task and ask them to return their attention to you so that you can refocus them. You might also use a visual marker of noise levels – for instance a traffic light symbol on your board that goes from green, to amber, to red as the noise levels rise.

Bear in mind that completing a piece of work while sat in a group is not the same thing as actually working as part of one. Get your students to consider the roles, rights, responsibilities and contributions that they make to the task, so that they can evaluate their learning when the activity is completed. How well did they build on other people’s ideas? Did they listen well, or speak too much? How supportive were they of what their peers wanted to do? How could they have ensured a better outcome? Encourage your students to reflect on what went well, what they could improve and how those improvements can be made. Making the most of group work is tricky, but it can offer some valuable outcomes and opportunities. And where it is done well, group work creates the chance to develop skills that are highly prized in school and beyond.

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Sue Cowley

Sue Cowley is an experienced teacher, trainer and CPD speaker who has written a number of best-selling books on teaching and learning.