7 Rules To Make Group work Work
It’s the Easter holidays. The harsh Devon wind blasts my ears back as I walk my two young children across the car park into the entrance of the Bear Feet soft play centre. Out of the cold and in the warm, my brain relaxes and within five minutes I feel sure I have solved the problem with group work in maths. Perhaps other people already did it before, but this is how it came to me…
I am standing in a cage made of padded scaffolding and netting, up to my ankles in jolly-coloured plastic balls. About 4 or 5 children are throwing the balls up into a kind of bucket or scoop (like you see on the front of a digger) over our heads. The bucket is attached to a pulley that can be used to tip the contents of the bucket back out. As fast as any child can aim a ball into the mouth of the bucket, one of the other children yanks on the pulley and the bucket vomits the ball back out again.
Now it’s fun to aim a ball at the bucket (I’ve thrown a few myself). And it’s fun to tip the bucket too. I haven’t done that myself but the children are doing it a lot, even when the bucket is empty – which of course makes it impossible to throw any more balls in until the bucket swings back. Most of the kids have a short frenzy of excitement with the equipment, followed by mild frustration or disenchantment as a pulley-operator tips up the bucket every three or four seconds. They wander off.
… Which leads me to my first point: this whole thing could be more fun. If I were in charge of the children in this cage (if only!), I would tell them to leave the pulley for a while, throw as many balls as we can into the bucket – to fill it, I hope – and only then would someone yank the pulley. There would then be a satisfying downpour of coloured balls, and we could start again. All children would, of course, take turns on the pulley.
Let’s suppose that I’m right, and this would be more fun than everyone randomly throwing and tipping. If I left this group to themselves in the cage for a few hours, I don’t think that they would spontaneously organize themselves in that way. No discussion would take place. No leader would emerge. No suggestions would be considered. No vote would be taken. In fact, waiting for a group of under-7s to coalesce into a functional group would be like waiting for chimpanzees with typewriters to come up with the works of Shakespeare.
And it wouldn’t work even if I told them they were a group and that they had to work together to find the best way to have fun with the bucket and balls. And it wouldn’t be much better if the children were a bit older. I’ve watched it be not much better quite a few times.
And that’s the problem with the ‘group work is good’ mentality, one in which the mere fact that children are working on something together is supposed to lead to teamwork (and various other Good Things). Just being in groups isn’t enough on its own. You have to actually teach teamwork. And if you don’t, there’s not much point.
Anyone not convinced should try watching a group of youngsters play their first game of football on a pitch. They all charge round after the ball, all trying to kick it up the pitch, without any thought, plan or skill. Any child who is enlightened enough to stand in space and wait for a pass will be totally ignored. It’s just a kind of sporting fracas, reminiscent of football’s ancient origins.
What’s needed is someone who knows better. Someone who can blow a whistle, assign roles, give instructions, explain tactics, and then enforce all of those before the group immediately follows its natural tendency towards anarchy.
In your classroom, with 5 or 6 groups at work simultaneously, it’s difficult just to monitor each group enough to see what is going on between them – let alone spend enough time with one group to actively teach them teamwork skills. That would involve interrupting the task as key moments arise for you to prove why teamwork is better. It’s doable, but you have to be very good at it, I’m sure.
What can you do? One thing is to work with the whole group sometimes, however many that is. Be strict about who speaks, and insist that speakers address what has been said before. Let people try their ideas. Everyone reviews the success of these experiments together.
Maths is perfect for teaching groupwork skills, because maths is not a matter of opinion. So you can’t agree to differ. At least one solution is out there. You have to think – to reason – to get to that solution, and if you are reasoning well you can explain your thinking to anyone. Split into smaller groups once the truth of this has been seen by all.
To get groups solving maths problems together, here are some principles – or rules, if you prefer – that the children might need to learn and follow:
- Think about the aim… ignore anything that doesn’t help you get there
- Listen to other people with respect…. interrupting others won’t save time
- Use reasons to change people’s minds… not volume or aggression
- Decide what to do together… agree to try ideas you don’t agree with
- Take responsibility in the group… and help others to keep joining in
- Change your mind when ideas don’t work… admitting you’re wrong makes you right
- Find ways to check your work… prove you’ve done what you were told to
All of the above would be too many to begin with, and a list like this can be drawn up as time goes on. But these are the kind of things the teacher needs to instill in the children, at some point. You might choose to wait until the children have investigated in an unstructured way to start off with and then you try to elicit these rules from them afterwards (aka learning the hard way). Or you could set them up as rules from the off.
It is vital that children notice the benefits. Where you notice those benefits, tell them what happened and why it was good.
Once you have enough children in the class who have internalized these skills, you may only need to reiterate them before a task. Admittedly, there are other things that probably need to be in place too (e.g. is the task sufficiently motivating for the children to be driven to succeed even when they are not being prevented from drifting off task?). But an awareness of what teamwork looks like, feels like and does for us is a necessary condition.
It’s not that group work is bad instead of good. It’s just that before it can really work, ironically, there needs to be a stage of, well… very direct instruction.
Andrew Day is the author of The Numberverse: How Numbers Are Bursting Out Of Everything And Just Want To Have Fun: