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.