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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Does Group Work ... Work?

By Peter DeWitt — July 20, 2014 4 min read
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School leaders love to see it during observations. They walk into classrooms and look at the walls to see what kind of student work may be hanging up, and then they look around the room and see tables. Tables, that splendid representation that the teachers lead student centered classrooms.

It means group work is happening in the classroom. That important strategy that allows students of varying levels of academic skills working together to further their own learning. After all, as adults we learn from the people we sit with. We learn through conversations, and it helps stretch our thinking.

Walking around the classroom during group work, it seems as though students are engaged in cooperative learning. If the observation is just a simple walkthrough to say hello and see students engaged, this is the point where school leaders may walk out to head in the direction of another classroom.

Good a little deeper.

That moment where a leader decides to walk out or stay a little bit longer may be one of the ways we differentiate between a leader ... and an instructional leader. Instructional leaders stay for a few extra minutes, glance at papers or the work in front of students, and they may even jump into one of the conversations.

Instructional leaders create a school environment with their students, staff, and parents. It’s not top down, nor is it bottom up ... it’s a balance between both.

Group Work May Not Involve a Group

Many times students may be sitting in cooperative groups ... engaging in individual tasks. Just because students sit as a group doesn’t automatically mean they are working as a group.

In Are You Creating a Culture of Learning? I mentioned a study by Dr. Robert Coe, a Professor at Durham University in the UK. Coe made a few interesting discoveries. First, is that new teachers spent most of their time talking to a few students in the class ... most likely students who were misbehaving. Even if students were sitting in a group, new teachers spent their time talking to a few students ... not all. That makes sense, right? New teachers do not see everything. Over time, hopefully, as they learn from veterans and gain experience, they learn out to even out their attention.

Fortunately, veteran teachers spent their time evenly distributing their attention among all of the students in class. Veteran teachers, those who are experts in their field, have a gift for doing that. They don’t leave anyone out, and don’t point anyone out either. They have a balanced approach to instruction.

However, when it came to group work the study showed that students, regardless of whether their teacher was fresh out of college or a veteran, spent over to 70% of their time sitting in cooperative groups, and yet spent 80% of their time engaged in individual tasks. Yes, it’s important to individualize learning, but some of these tasks were individual worksheets, and did not involve meaningful learning.

What does group work mean? It might mean something different to each of us. For some teachers, group work has positive benefits, but to others it may have negative connotations.

Digging Deeper!

School leaders can take the time to dive down a little deeper into the classroom observation or walkthrough. Not as a way to “catch” the teacher doing something wrong, but to help assist the teacher in going deeper with their instruction so that students can go deeper in their learning. A good school climate supports this combined effort in learning.

School leaders need not be the “administrator” all the time. Sometimes they can be another set of eyes to notice things that teachers may not see, like group work that is more individual than group. This works well as long as the administrator allows teachers to be the eyes for things that they do not see from the leadership level.

Go out on a limb and make it the center of a discussion at a faculty meeting. Ask...what does group work mean?

Teachers can, should and most likely do, reflect on their classroom practices on a daily basis. That’s a no brainer! But is it focused reflection or just thankfulness that they made it through a tough situation that day? Group versus individual learning can be a part of that focused reflection.

  • Do I have students sitting in cooperative groups engaged in cooperative learning?
  • Or are students sitting in cooperative groups doing their own thing?
  • Does each student have a responsibility?
  • Do they know how to engage in dialogue?
  • Have we modeled for our students what group work looks like?
  • Does group work...work in my class?
  • Do I throw students into groups without providing learning intentions and success criteria?

It doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing if students are doing individual work, just as long as there is a good balance between working cooperatively and on their own.

In the End

Group work looks great. It provides a school leader with a visual that students are working cooperatively. But leaders and teachers need to dig down a bit deeper to see if that is really the case. Sometimes when teachers have the intention of having students engaged in group work, the students only act like a group when the teacher is around.

We know there are benefits of working in a finely-tuned group. We can learn a lot from those sitting around us, especially if we have diverse thoughts. All of this takes great modeling on the part of the teacher. So, when diving into group work we need to ask ourselves:

  • Do students sit cooperatively and work individually?
  • Does group work lead to a situation where one student does most of the work while others hang on the coattails?
  • Have students been told how to work as a group, or do teachers just assume the teacher from the previous year taught the students that already?

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.