Should we have consistent messaging on group work?

I just read a short piece on how to study in groups.  In it, the author made the point that, done correctly, it seems to help over 100% alone study.

She also admits that her parents were right to not let her join study groups in middle school; when she finally did join them in high school, they simply combined their mutual powers of procrastination.

Here we have the ‘group work debate’ in a nutshell.  One side argues it will have many benefits, the other argues it doesn’t, and pupils learn less, the first argues the second simply wasn’t doing it right.  Bring out the epicycles!

I expect that, at the time, the author was deeply unimpressed by their parents’ decision to insist that they study alone.  After all, all their friends were allowed to study together, why can’t I?!  Yet even the author admits later that their parents had it right.

For me, the following has been clear for a long time: there are obviously times when human being learns more from studying in groups, but getting that right takes such great effort and maturity that it will certainly more often than not go wrong.  It’s not that one group of teachers aren’t ‘doing group work right,’ it’s that getting group work into anything that approximates a good learning environment on even rare occasions takes a herculean effort.  From this it follows that we should naturally expect it to fail over time – successful group work represents an unstable point, requiring great effort to maintain, and desperate to sink back into procrastination and debates on the relative virtues of One Direction at any moment.  This is all before considering whether, actually, the pupils would have covered more ground and retain the knowledge better over a longer period of time if they had worked alone – in most cases, cognitive psychology suggests that they would.

Like Ptolemy’s model of the universe, that resulted in an endless construction of epicycles on top of epicycles to make it work, perhaps the group work model becomes unworkable in its complexity because we have the wrong model: lone study is the best way to learn.  Doesn’t sound very compelling; sounds a bit cold in fact.  You can see why it’s easy to sell people on the warmer pedagogy of ‘togetherness,’ but if we are to be experts and professionals, do we not have a duty to the truth, rather than what we wish to be true?

In the run up to the exams, I watched a Year 11 girl exemplify this.  She poured an enormous amount of extra time into studying maths outside of school, coming to sessions outside normal hours and so forth.  In the final week, with only days to go, and the unusual advantage of having only four pupils in the room to one teacher, she would ‘get to work,’ looking all determined, and then a few seconds later ask a question like “What would happen if we failed this exam?” or “How did last year do?”  All things that were on her mind, all questions that weren’t going to help her achieve her goals.  The other pupils had been working with solid focus, but were now instantly drawn in to her irrelevant conversation, rather than rebuking her and continuing with their own study.

The group unit is an unstable one when it is populated by people who are not yet mature.  It is not the case that ‘practising working in groups’ will solve this, and how much time have we already wasted trying?  How many futures have we hindered or wiped out because we liked the idea of group work, and the kids liked ‘working’ in groups, and there was the faintest whiff of ‘sometimes people learn better in groups’ in the air.

What if we had more consistent messaging on this?  What if, like the parents in the article above, we recognised collectively the difficulties and pitfalls of group study and held a consistent line that said ‘no, not until you’re ready.’  Imagine if every time a pupil had asked ‘Can I work with X?’ they had been met with ‘Of course not!  What a silly idea, you’ll only learn if you do the work yourself,’ instead of a mixed message from different teachers.  How quickly would the idea of ‘learning better in groups’ evaporate in the face of such consistent messaging from education professionals…

Pupils hate it because it’s hard work.  We need to love it, because hard work is what they need.


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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16 Responses to Should we have consistent messaging on group work?

  1. dannytybrown says:

    There is ‘evidence’ in favour either way.

    The decision whether one thinks *these* students should do *this* activity in *this or that* way probably comes down to judgement, based on your beliefs about about how (these) people might learn, what you think mathematics is, and more widely, on what you think is the purpose of education.

    How do people learn?

    Is the classroom just for learning a body of knowledge that we call mathematics that does not require conversation, or is conversation an essential part of the doing of mathematics?

    Are there wider purposes for education that should be integrated into all classroom practice?

    If you think there is rarely any value in conversation in the classroom, either when doing mathematics, or for learning to be in-the-world, then yes, it seems logical to discourage conversation in the classroom.

    If you think there is little value in conversation when doing mathematics, but you think it is an important of learning to be in-the-world with others (or vice versa), then here is a dilemma.

    One resolution might be to decide that the classroom is only for learning mathematics, and that this can be removed from learning to be in-the-world, but I imagine this must feel unsatisfactory. Or perhaps you might encourage conversation in the belief that you were inhibiting the learning of mathematics? Or perhaps you do a bit of both in order to balance these two (to you) ‘conflicting’ purposes?

    If you think conversation is valuable/essential for both doing mathematics, and for learning to be in-the-world, then there is no dilemma; one would aim to create opportunities for conversation, and the question only remains how and when.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      For me it always comes back to a combination of sequence and Cargo Cults. We can look at mathematicians and see that conversation often plays a role in their work, or indeed in almost any adult professional productive activity. From that, should we conclude that we must have pupils practice such conversations at school?

      The first mistake we might make there is conflating output with input (the Cargo Cult fallacy.) What we observe as the output is not necessarily the same as what is needed to get to said output. To learn to read, for example, you don’t pick up books and read; you learn the phonetic code first. To learn French, you don’t have conversations with people in French (because you can’t…) you learn their grammar rules, and start memorising vocabulary. To get better at football you don’t play football games, you run passing drills, shooting drills, ball control drills, and so forth.

      In each case, however, there eventually comes a time when reading books, having conversations in French, and playing full size football matches becomes both useful and even necessary to develop further. This is where the question of sequence comes in. Do we *start* with any of these activities? No. Do we get on to them eventually? Yes. So when do we transition…?

      At school, should pupils be trying to ‘learn in groups’ from the age of 5, or 15, or even later? What is the appropriate time to start, why do we choose that point to start, what are the objectives of the group study activity that a lone study activity cannot meet? What is the right balance of one to the other? Is school even the right place for this, or is this the kind of learning that should take place after compulsory schooling? Is it better learnt in ‘the real world’?

      I for one am more than happy to delve into this kind of thinking, and I think they’re the kinds of sensible questions that a mature profession would ask itself as it expands its body of knowledge, but that’s not where we are, and that’s not what we do. We tend to think along the lines, a bit like you’ve suggested: ‘Do I value mathematical talk?’ rather than ‘What are our goals, and how will we reach them?’ and we then dive in to ‘try out’ group work, poorly evaluating its results, and teaching kids that ‘group work’ is a thing, when in reality it’s more often ‘less work’ or ‘no work’ or ‘a few work.’

      Bear in mind I’m thinking about this from a national scale – one single teacher could insist and even prove that they’ve produced the most remarkable group learning culture in her classroom, but if it weren’t replicable, if it was just her being a unique and remarkable individual in a unique context, then I would even consider the possibility of suggesting she shouldn’t do it! Not because ‘I just hate group work *that* much,’ but because I worry about the inconsistency in our system – the fact that a roll of the dice determines the school experience of each child as they find themselves placed with different schools, and teachers. If one person begins to sing the praises of group work, but it turns out that only they could make it effective, then suddenly thousands of teachers might be pulled away from effective practice in order to ‘try it out,’ and a hundred thousand futures would be shattered in its wake.

      We end up with a culture in which kids tell us they ‘want to work in groups’ or ‘want to work together’ or ‘I learn better when I work with someone else,’ when in reality they usually don’t, and all they really want is to avoid hard, difficult, real, study. If we held a line together on this, I suspect we’d quickly see that particular brand of work avoidance die a pretty quick death.

      • dannytybrown says:

        There’s a lot here, you raise important points.

        I’m not sure I agree with your learning model (first few paragraphs). I follow Gattegno, Heidegger, Mason that we learn through gaining familiarity with the world, by trying things out, through shifts in awareness. We sometimes practice things in isolation, attending to the particular, but other times turn our attention to the whole, but always in the world and not separable.

        I don’t find the idea of linear transition helpful, but rather a model of co-emergence, switching between the concrete and abstract rather than a linear progression from the concrete to the abstract or vice versa. This switching between part and whole imbues meaning and relevance.

        Next: I would say that I am not sure ‘group work’ as a thing that teachers can/should try out, as a thing that is more or less effective, makes much sense to me, but rather that we might want to think about the way students and teachers are with each other in classrooms, about our ways of being.

        For example, I am of the view that it is crucial that we provide opportunities for students to learn how to become attentive and receptive, both in order to learn/do mathematics, and in order to learn how to care for others. And for this, we require conversations. This, I feel, transcends whether we should ‘do group work’ or not, but rather leads to a discussion about ways of being in a classroom, about purposes and values of education as a whole.

        Should we thinking about whether or not we should be ‘doing group work’, or should we be thinking about creating classrooms where conversations can happen, if and when required, more or less spontaneously, and in response to a real need or desire to talk about something in order to learn, but equally do not need to happen if there is no need, or if it would be unfavourable in a given instance.

        In my classroom, there is no intention to ‘do group work’, but rather an intention to bring to awareness a set of values that include receptivity and attentiveness (part of an ethic of care), and one of my considerations as a teacher is to what extent dialogue may or may not be productive in any given instance, according to both mathematical and wider purposes, none of which are conflicting but rather intertwined.

        This might be difficult to achieve, but I honestly think it is not, and that the view that we should not aim to achieve these ideals (as they may only be achievable by some) may lead to the impoverished model of education experienced by many children in our schools today.

      • Kris Boulton says:

        …the view that we should not aim to achieve these ideals (as they may only be achievable by some) may lead to the impoverished model of education experienced by many children in our schools today.

        Here’s an interesting point: while you worry that the absence of what you describe has led to the impoverished school experience of many, I worry that it is in fact attempts at its inclusion that have led to this result!

        I agree with the principle, but to some extent it’s fair to ask, who wouldn’t? It’s as vague and imprecise as ‘everyone should be nice to each other.’ Sure, but that’s not a theory of learning or instruction. Likewise for ‘we learn through gaining familiarity with the world, by trying things out, through shifts in awareness.‘ I’m sure we do, but again, it’s not a real theory of learning, nor does it lead to a theory of instruction; as in, a model with both explanatory and predictive power as to what actions teachers and pupils should take to ensure the greatest learning gains, where learning is clearly defined (in my case, ‘change in the state of long term memory’)

        When ideas are as vague as you describe, every teacher will interpret them differently, and some will do something good with it, and others won’t, and then we have a fragmented education sector. Conversely, if I can say to one teacher ‘Try explaining ratio this way. Start here, then ask them this, then move on to this, be careful to do this and use these words at this point. This would be a good moment to allow for questions, or to use pair discussion around this question…’ etc. and have it predictably lead to better outcomes than other alternatives, well then that’s not only useful, but it is to a larger extent measurable and testable against said alternatives. Compare the levels of precision in the guidance to the teacher between our two suggestions.

        We can’t really talk about what is to be gained through ‘group work’ or conversation until we can answer what is lost by not using the time to engage in the alternatives (incidentally, no group work in lessons doesn’t necessarily mean no conversation ever…) We haven’t yet clearly defined, tested and agreed upon the alternatives as a professional body, and so we’re all just floating around a bit at a loss. Within that milieu many teachers will make use of ‘group work’ because it sounds lovely, pedagogically sensible, and many kids love it. Others will be forced into it by SLT and department heads and because Ofsted legacy. Within this group work mosh pit we engender a national culture that tends towards laziness and apathy.

        I might be helping myself a bit to some fantastic causal leaps now, but consider the extreme alternative, one in which nearly every pupil activity involved observing the teacher, responding to questions, short sharp pair talk, whole group discussion and independent activities. A child could certainly still opt out of the lesson, but it would be patently obvious that they had; they could no longer opt out and hide behind a veneer of ‘we’re working together!’

  2. dannytybrown says:

    Yes, you are right. What I am talking about is vague and imprecise in terms of not prescribing a recipe that teachers should follow. However, the work which I am advocating teachers undertake is not just a vague, every one should be nice to each other, do what makes kids happy, and so on.

    The (extensive) work I am suggesting requires that teachers spend a great deal of time and thought, reading widely and having conversations about what decisions they might make and why. Or at the very least, we should be doing this work and disseminating it, giving the profession a framework within which to research their own practice, to analyse their experience. This is a far cry from saying every one should be nice to each other, now everyone get on with it however you want.

    I advocate time spent discussing the values and purposes upon which decisions might be based, allowing teachers a basis for making decisions according to the variety of experiences they will encounter at face value, rather than trying to create a routine that will on average always work better than all of the other possible ones, which is course is unlikely to be possible or desirable. We should be creating a framework within which teachers can do this work.

    The approach you advocate takes little account of possibilities/contingency, of contexts and people, not least because of the fact that teachers act according to their experiences and beliefs, which as we know can not be aligned. The recipe you desire is unlikely to become a reality unless enforced, and this just does not seem favourable or possible.

    Regarding measuring the ‘effectiveness’ of various approaches, what you measure (and how) also comes down to what you value, what you think matters. We can measure exam results, but this is not all we might want to measure. It may really be the case that some of what we value is very difficult to measure, which I know is very hard for the evidence-based practice community to accept.

    The recipes you hope for are unlikely to be possible, and are probably not favourable if we are interested in giving teachers the ability to respond thoughtfully to the complexity of the situations they face day to day. I would say it is time we as a profession starting having conversations about what matters, values and purposes, to give teachers the tools to deal with this complexity, instead of writing recipes that people should follow (but probably won’t).

    • Kris Boulton says:

      On the contrary, such ‘recipes’ are actually necessary if we are to give teachers the ability to respond thoughtfully to the complexity of situations they face day to day.

      Let’s use actual recipes as an example. Few people can become a great chef by raw experimentation alone (it’s possible, but super rare.) Few can be become great by learning the principles of cooking alone – learning things like the differences between cooking methods, chopping methods, flavour combinations and such – it’s all still too overwhelming. Finally, few will become great if they only follow the recipes of others. I’ve recently dived into Hello Fresh, I’m cooking better meals than I ever have! I’m learning some stuff. I’m not becoming a great chef, because I don’t understand the principles by which those recipes were constructed, I don’t understand the conditions that I can choose to vary, and how, I just follow the plan.

      I would suggest that greatness requires all three. The principles are required to understand ‘how to cook,’ the recipes are required so as to limit the initially overwhelming and baffling complexity in which those principles can be applied; together, the recipes and principles allow for the final ingredient of experimentation. If one wishes, one could take a recipe and vary it in ways they understand they can, thanks to their knowledge of the principles. They could take that recipe and adapt it for their pescatarian or vegetarian friend, or their friend who doesn’t eat beef, or pork, or the one doesn’t like spice, or who loves it.

      The same is true of Lemov’s approach. Many misunderstand it as only being a series of ‘recipes’ or pre-programmed formulae for teaching. It’s not. His techniques are the recipes to some extent, sure, but the book includes the principles, along with the belief that the better teacher is the one who selects and applies as appropriate to their situation. It also recognises that this is a craft that takes time to develop and cannot be immediately deployed. As a great chef must start out by following some recipes, so too a great teacher must start out by following some recipes.

      Likewise with instruction, there really are ways of explaining concepts that are better than others; no-one should be disagreeing on that point. Once teachers have learnt these and practised using them, whilst also being taught the principles by which they work, then and only then will teachers be empowered to experiment, tweak, adapt, select and make complex decisions in a complex environment, as desired.

      I’m all for open conversations about values and such, but I think the idea that ‘we’ll never agree’ is over stated. We will almost certainly all agree that it’s probably a good idea for pupils to learn about ratio and proportion in mathematics. We will probably therefore all agree that it is desirable for pupils to be successful in learning it. From there, there we will agree that there are some explanations that work better than others. I don’t believe we will need to force or mandate anything; even a little experience is enough to logically analyse most approaches and appreciate that they will be more successful than the alternatives. Since all teachers ultimately wish to be successful themselves, they will simply select from the most successful explanations. Once we can get to that point we can dive into all kinds of fun and rigorous experimentation as to what tweaks work better under what conditions.

  3. dannytybrown says:

    I regret my use of the recipe metaphor, as I don’t find the cooking analogy applied to teaching is useful. Teaching is teaching, not cooking.

    As you are probably aware, I think Teach Like a Champion is a move in the wrong direction for the teaching profession.

    Finally, yes, we might agree that ratio and proportion are something worth teaching children, although we might not, it depends on what we value as important in the subject of mathematics. Suppose that we agree on this.

    Then, we will probably find it much hard to agree what ‘to be successful in learning it’ really means. This comes down to what method of assessment we think is valuable. Suppose we are pragmatic and agree that ‘success in learning it’ equates to a higher result in a GCSE exam – after all, that is how they students will be measured. But, of course, we may might not agree on this (and with good reason).

    But we have to deal with what we are given, so suppose we reluctantly agree that this is how we will measure ‘effective teaching’ – we agree that success in a GCSE mathematics exam is a good measure of whether something we value was successfully learned.

    Now, we may ask, is whether something was successfully learned that same as whether something was successfully taught? We might not be in agreement here. What can the teacher be responsible for? But let’s skip this one for now, and suppose we agree that students results in the GCSE exam is a good measure of whether the teacher had provided the best opportunities for student learning.

    So, given all of this, we must now agree which explanation of this fixed bit of content is best. Well, this may be even harder to agree on. But given that we agree that you can measure the quality of exposition using the results of the students, all that would remain would be to analyse a range of different explanations, and control for all other factors. Assuming this is possible or desirable, which it probably isn’t.

    But supposing it is, you then, as a teacher, give what has been agreed, according to all these measures, the ‘best’ explanation. And yet many of your students fail to perform on that ratio question in the exam. You rest assured in the ‘knowledge’ that you gave the best explanation, and try to work out what else went wrong. But at least you gave the best explanation, didn’t you?

    And all of this of course ignores what I have been talking about in the first place, which is that there is more to education than learning some content. And this also brings us back to values and purposes. I think agreement might be harder than you think. But might this be where the discussion should start before we can *start* to reach any agreement about any of this?

    • Kris Boulton says:

      And here we need to bring the discussion back to the idea of what is useful. Descartes might have been right philosophically that we know nothing save that cogito ergo sum, but it wasn’t a particularly useful idea to anyone.

      We can atomise teaching if we want, and quibble over every detail, or we can do what any good pragmatist would do and recognise that we are more alike than we are different in how we learn, and we are more alike than we are different on what we all hope state education might achieve. Starting from a base of what we have in common, rather than searching for difference, we are likely to get much further in achieving our aims.

  4. dannytybrown says:

    It is generally regarded that Descartes’ philosophy is problematic, and I think we do need to consider the complexity of teaching a class full of children, but OK, let’s see what values we have in common and start from there…

    I start with Nel Noddings’ notion that the primary aim of schooling is to educate: “how to receive and be received, to care and be cared-for”.

    In her book, Caring, Noddings suggests the teacher has two tasks: “To stretch the student’s world by presenting a selection of that world with which they are in contact, and to work cooperatively with that student in his [sic] struggle towards competence in that world. But [the teacher’s] task as one-caring has higher priority than either of these. First and foremost [the teacher] must nurture the student’s ethical ideal (the student’s ability to care, developed in congruence with one’s remembrance of caring and being cared-for).”


  5. dannytybrown says:


  6. dannytybrown says:

    So. Back to your article.

    1. “You can see why it’s easy to sell people on the warmer pedagogy of ‘togetherness,’

    If we are agreed on importance of the caring relation in education, then I think this implies a ‘pedagogy of togetherness’, or at least a pedagogy of what Noddings calls ‘relatedness’.

    2. “The group unit is an unstable one when it is populated by people who are not yet mature. It is not the case that ‘practising working in groups’ will solve this, and how much time have we already wasted trying?”

    Indeed it is unstable (as is all learning), but if we believe in nurturing the ethical ideal, then we have a duty to educate the children we teach in the consequences of their actions on others, through allowing opportunities for development (with dialogue and reflection), not through eradicating those possibilities. If we want to nurture an ethic of care in students, it is indeed the case that we must also opportunities to practise how to be attentive and receptive, how to receive and be received. If this is an (not even primary) aim of education, then this is surely not ‘time wasted’?

    3. “What if… we recognised collectively the difficulties and pitfalls of group study and held a consistent line that said ‘no, not until you’re ready.’”

    How do you propose students will become ready if they do not have opportunities to become adept, and guidance from those with more experience? I quote Noddings again here:

    “If we value genuine caring encounters, then our classrooms will be cooperatively organised for many tasks. Children will be encouraged to learn from each other as well as from teachers and books. The research literature on what is learned in cooperative groups as contrasted to what is learned individually is ambiguous, but we must keep in mind that I am not claiming enhanced individual cognitive development as an outcome of this structure. It may occur; indeed, I suspect it will occur. But the aim is enhancement of the ethical ideal, of the sense of relatedness, of renewed commitment to receptivity. With that aim clearly in mind, we will not give up when studies produce “no significant differences” in academic achievement. The purpose in talking about aims is to keep our priorities straight.”

    Now, if we are agreed that our (primary) aim is to nurture the student’s ability to care, then I agree with Noddings that we should as a profession be talking about this as an aim, maintaining it as a priority, finding ways to make it an integral part of our practice.

    I also agree that it follows that we should seek ways to make cooperation an integral part of a caring classroom. I don’t particularly like the term group work, as it suggests an artificial structure to make cooperation happen, and would prefer extensive work done by the teacher on building community in the classroom, and encouraging spontaneous cooperation.

    Perhaps there may be instances where working with others may impede the ‘amount’ of mathematical content learned (if this makes sense), but what else is learned? And how does this fit with our agreed values? How to proceed, then, would be a judgement to be made by the informed teacher acting according to an agreed set of values. Sometimes talking about mathematics might be considered most beneficial in the balance of all aims, sometimes not.

    Of course, this is not to say: everyone can just have a chat about whatever because we’ll all learn something. It is saying that students and teachers have choices to make in the interests of themselves and the community that is the mathematics classroom.

    If students make choices that diminish the ethical capacity of the the teacher and others in the room, then the teacher must meet that student as one caring and seek to what Buber would call ‘include and confirm’ this student, as far as this is possible, to nurture their ethical ideal.

    This is a long way from abandoning group work as a waste of time, not allowing students to work together until they are miraculously ready to do so, it is about teaching them how to work together, to be receptive, to care.

  7. suecowley says:

    One of the things we are busy teaching our 2 to 4 year olds at preschool is how to take turns and share. You can’t learn how to take turns and share if you work alone. You can’t learn how to socialise if you work alone. We tend to see ourselves as a team made up of practitioners and children, rather than a group of adults and a separate group of children (this is perhaps especially so during forest school where the children will spend the whole day outside, working together). When they play in groups (which they do most of the time), some of the conversation that they have might seem ‘irrelevant’ in terms of knowledge or whatever, but they are learning important skills, such as how to negotiate, how to empathise, and all the time they are building vocabulary (even if it is about the TV and not about the curriculum). It’s interesting that we don’t view this as problematic in EYFS but that it seems such a worry to some teachers at secondary – do children maybe go backwards in this skill set as they age or is it a problem that school somehow creates?

    Just to correct a small point of fact – in modern football coaching there are 2 schools of thought, one where children are drilled in techniques separate to the game, but these days the more common approach is to teach them technique through game play, from the very earliest age, because this is how the most successful footballing nations seem to do it (as per street football in places like South America). Also, just a reminder that you can’t do drama, dance or PE without working in groups, so there cannot be a point where the whole profession says ‘do it like this in all subjects’.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Thanks Sue.

      I’ll take your word on the football; it’s been my understanding that the converse is true. It’s the nations that try to teach the skills through the games that are the lower performing.

      I tend to avoid opining on EY – two and four year olds are obviously a very different kind of person from 11-16 year olds.

      Of course, drama, dance and PE would naturally take place in groups a lot of the time (not always.) That seems to be a natural and appropriate model for those three performance activities. Given that that experience is being provided during those times, then, it would further seem unnecessary to try to mash group work in where it is perhaps neither natural nor appropriate.

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