Trainee teachers are told time and time again to use group work. Often, the pressure is not formally applied.
The Teachers’ Standards, for instance, do not explicitly advocate group work over direct instruction. Nevertheless, in meetings with academic and professional mentors, or with training providers, the pressure is somehow there.
‘Look how hard you were working,’ said with a simpering smile and an unspoken offer of a pat on the wrist. ‘How do you think you could have made that easier for yourself?’ Teaching is difficult. There are no quick fixes.
Anybody offering you these panaceas more truly belongs in an infomercial for a JML Toilet Knight than in an ITT setting. What is the solution? Learn your craft, don’t be lazy, and, for God’s sake, don’t even try to use group work to conceal your lack of subject knowledge.
‘How could you ensure that everybody is doing something, all at the same time?’ Let me rephrase this stock ITT question: ‘How could you ensure that everybody looks busy so that you can impress the person observing you?’
If I am questioning my pupils very intensely and analysing their body language I will know who is active and who is passive. I will deliberately choose the pupils looking away from me to answer my questions.
Furthermore, the prevailing silence (aside from one person speaking at a time) will allow me to gauge any off-task conversation.
Contrast this with group work, where there are numerous conversations proceeding at the same time – many of which, accompanied with a sly head turn and nod to a co-conspirator, mysteriously transform into talking-points patois the moment I approach.
Am I wrong? Is it merely the case that the group work I am so shamefully satirising is simply bad group work? Did the ITT provider with the knowing smile, and patient sympathy for my plight, have that deft touch for the group task that will take me many, many years (even decades) to master?
There is a gap here between looking good and having integrity – a doublethink that does more to reverse pupil progress than carry it forward. We know that group work has been a massive failure.
This is not a research article but here is just a sample: educational outcomes in France and America, McKinsey’s analysis of PISA test scores, and Project Follow Through in America. And let me be clear, this is merely the millimetrical pinnacle of the iceberg.
Exceptions to group work
Are there exceptions to the rule? Sure. Kalyuga et al (2003) notes that the effect reverses where novices become expert, and that pupils with high levels of knowledge can benefit from problem solving – which tends to be the modus operandi of group- and child-centred tasks.
The McKinsey analysis also discovered that group work as an addendum to explicit instruction could be complementary, hence Tom Sherrington argues in favour of exploration activities (Mode-B Teaching) making up 20 per cent of the curriculum.
Nevertheless, in the initial and intermediate stages of the learning process, teacher-led and explicit instruction is invariably optimal.
Samuel Elliott has been a classroom teacher since 2016. Having grown up, lived in and taught in deprived areas affords him key insights into misbehaviour that many teachers lack. These experiences informed his approaches in his trainee and NQT years, which, combined with his research into behavioural psychology, have since given rise to a pedagogy that borrows from both traditional and progressive philosophies.
Samuel’s new book ASBO Teacher: An irreverent guide to surviving in challenging classrooms (Crown House Publishing, 2021) is available at crownhouse.co.uk/publications/asbo-teacher.