The Metaphor Of Collaboration - What's missing from group work?
Get big results from small group work.
by Ambreen Ahmed
New contributor to the Gazette
January 1, 2009
Research has consistently come up with the findings that although children are seated in groups in classroom, they nevertheless spend most of their time undertaking individual work. Teachers and students both show reluctance to use group work as a major pedagogical strategy.
Teachers frequently report dissatisfaction with group work because of the tendency of the children to go off task, conflicts resulting from unequal input from group members, the time consuming nature of group tasks and their assessment. Pupils on the other hand feel insecure when asked to work in a group, with the most vocal students domineering the group, and the shy ones following the lead passively. This results in teachers either utilizing whole class teaching to a large group or carrying one-on-one interaction with individuals in a small group, leaving few opportunities for children to interact with each other.
Despite these problems, research has also shown small group work to deliver impressive academic and social outcomes, if conducted collaboratively. This means that for group work to be successful, the members of the group should work cooperatively. However, as any teacher knows, merely asking children to work cooperatively in groups does not make it happen! This article discusses some prerequisites that need consideration if groupwork is to be utilized to its fullest.
Firstly, children need opportunities to develop their social and communication skills. This includes the more obvious skills like stating ideas freely, sharing of resources and listening to others’ ideas without put downs, but also the less obvious skills like being able to ask for and provide help to their peers. The latter is particularly important in developing children’s abilities to provide detailed explanations in response to queries from their peers.
Research shows that generating elaborate explanations (as opposed to just providing the right answers) is beneficial as much for the help seeker as it is for the help giver. For young children, these skills can be taught successfully through role play where they model appropriate behavior with the help of teacher.
Secondly, it is important to realize that not all tasks lend themselves to group work. For successful group work to take place, the tasks should be such that require a cooperative effort from all its members. There are different strategies in this context that teachers can be made aware of. One such useful strategy is the use of question prompts that students use as a guide to shape the task related talk. Examples of some common question prompts are “Why do you think…”, “What makes this better than that...”, “What reason have you got for your answer…”etc. When adapted to the topic at hand, these generic questions can engage children in thoughtful and productive talk.
Jigsaw is another useful technique that requires cooperation of group members through interdependent activities. Particularly useful in Social Studies and certain topics of Science, this technique works by breaking up the main task into smaller sub tasks with each member of the group made responsible for one particular sub task. The class is then reshuffled into new “expert groups” which are composed of members doing the same subtask. The purpose of the expert groups is that the members help each other become proficient in one common area. After this activity, the initial groups get back together, with each member as the expert of their allotted topic. Each expert now helps the rest of the group in learning his/her area of expertise.
Another approach worth mentioning in the context of cooperative group work is the assignment of different roles to the children according to their talents. For instance, in creating a timeline in Social Studies, teachers can allocate students the role of scribe (somebody with good handwriting), drawer (somebody with good drawing skills), researcher (a child with good reading skills) and a summarizer (somebody with good listening skills, who keeps track of the information). When used in the context of open ended activities, the adoption of different roles can provide group members with an opportunity to make use of their diverse talents, thereby promoting positive interdependence and positive perception of others.
Creative teachers will find ways to adapt these strategies to integrate group work in the context of their classrooms. When structured appropriately, with due consideration to the social skills that children need to communicate effectively, group work can not only lessen the children’s dependence on the teacher, but also improve their relationships with their peers, transforming them into sociable and successful learners.
Ambreen Ahmed, MA. has many years of experience teaching children from kindergarten through grade six. She has traveled extensively, and has taught in diverse multicultural and multilingual settings. Her special interests include research on teaching English as an additional language and designing collaborative learning contexts. She is married to a pediatrician, and currently juggles a full life in the trendy state of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates with her three children. She loves entertaining and creating exotic continental cuisines for friends and family. Her most prized possession is her inspirational collection of cookbooks from around the globe.