5 Tips for Planning Classroom Group Work

Richard Canning

Richard Canning is a teacher and the co-founder of GroupU, a startup company committed to using technology to enable high-quality group work in lessons and teach lifelong collaboration skills to students. Prior to this, he was an assistant headteacher (director of ICT) in secondary schools and worked on whole-school improvement programmes.

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As teachers, we find it challenging to plan and manage high-quality group work in the classroom. Undeterred, we try to find ways to make it happen because we know that effective classroom group work makes differentiation easier and allows us to spot and tackle individual needs. We also try to make it happen because well-structured classroom activities are the only way we can teach young people the skills they need to work successfully with others. It follows that, if we can equip young people with these skills in school, they will take those skills out into the world and stand a better chance of becoming successful employees, entrepreneurs, partners and community members.

So, when planning for a group activity, we need to know what to look out for in order to make it as effective as possible. We’ve all stood amongst tables of chattering students and felt that awful dropping feeling in the stomach when we realise that, at best, only half of them are engaged in our carefully planned activity and even fewer are actually moving themselves forward. In an effort to avoid that mid-lesson stress, here are five key things to consider that should help plan a successful group activity:

1. Engage every member of the group

All too often, a great group activity suffers because the dynamics of the group mean not all the students are able to make a contribution that helps them with their own understanding. This results in members of the group ‘coasting’, while others work in a way that only meets their own needs.

When planning your group activity, you need to set it up so that all the students have a clear role to play. You might already have realised that sitting them together and hoping they will automatically share the workload is just a dream, but you still need to spend some time considering precisely what each student in the group needs to contribute. This contribution could be expressed in the form of a specific role for each student, or by allocating a clearly defined outcome (eg providing a written response or verbal feedback). Whatever you decide, your knowledge of each student and how far you want to stretch them is vital to choosing a high quality outcome for them to focus upon.

2. Share your rationale

Young people are no different from adults when being told to break a routine. They get used to working in a certain way, and when someone disrupts things they want to be sure it’s for a good reason. When students are told to move seats and work with somebody different, they are at best uncertain and at worst defiant. Neither state of mind is ideal for hitting the ground running in their new group.

To help students handle the disruption to their usual routine, get them involved in your reasoning for how their groups were formed. Describe or show them why you have organised them in this way and don’t be afraid to reveal how you have used your knowledge of their individual needs to form the optimum group membership. This will show them that you are not simply asserting your control, but that you have put their needs at the centre of your planning and used your judgement to decide how best to help them. By doing this, they should be able to see why moving seats benefits them personally and be more confident about undertaking the task.

3. Give guidance on group operation

Once they begin working on the group activity, each student will most likely revert to their own social behaviours when interacting with their peers. This could still result in some quality outcomes, but mostly it causes a number of frequently-seen group dynamics:

i. Nobody in the group interacts willingly.
ii. One or two members dominate the group, while others might disengage or, worse, actively work against the other group members.
iii. Everybody gets involved, but with no clear direction.

To avoid this, ensure you give clear guidelines for how the group should interact. Try:

i. Telling the groups that nothing is agreed until everyone has signed, or written something.
ii. Allocating a ‘thought leader’ for stages or items within the activity, so that each student has ownership of the group’s outcome on that item.
iii. Telling the groups that each student needs to record their RAG rating on whether they understand or agree with the group’s outcome for each stage or item.

While you’re going round the room and visiting the groups, you can check progress against the guidelines and provide further challenge to the students where needed.

4. Keep the plates spinning

Most young people have a lot of things going on outside school, and a lot to occupy their thoughts before they even walk into the classroom. When another student is answering the teacher’s question(s), or feeding back on the progress of their group, it is often a golden opportunity for other students to switch off and let their thoughts drift to other things. The class inevitably becomes fragmented into those who are engaged in “active listening” (ie processing what is being said then applying it to their own understanding) and those who are engaged in “passive listening” (ie hearing what is being said, but not processing it and/or not applying it). Worse still, there will always be the minority of students who take advantage of the focus being on someone else and drop out of the discussion altogether, either becoming a distraction (chatting, etc) or simply not listening at all.

This means that any plan for group work needs to consider how all the other students will be occupied while your focus is on one group or one student. This is particularly important if one group is asked to share their outcomes with the rest of the class, as you might end up with everyone else fidgeting and chatting while only one group is engaged.

A quick way to prepare for this is to provide a ‘capture sheet’ so students can record findings from the other groups’ feedback. Ideally this should give them a scaffold for their next piece of learning.

5. Shared Goals

There are many ways to respond to a task and, when they work together, students often disagree on what their group should be trying to achieve. Without an agreed, shared understanding of what the group is working towards, individual members of the group will become frustrated and disengage from the task. This slows the group down and can lead to arguments that cause the whole activity to stall entirely.

To avoid this, make sure you plan in a clear statement of what each group should produce as a response to the task. This should include the acceptable format(s) and the scale of it (eg duration of verbal response, amount of written words, etc).

How do you nail group work in the classroom? Let us know below!

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