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Investigating Group Work – Classroom Research as Genuine Enquiry

Barbara Bleiman

Why does group work seem to be falling out of favour?  There has been a rising volume of voices in the educational world suggesting that group work is ineffective and should no longer be viewed as an important element of classroom work. Direct instruction and whole class activity are being promoted as the sole means of teaching knowledge. In November 2015 the English and Media Centre (EMC) set up a small-scale research project into group work in English classrooms, to respond to this, entitled ‘It’s Good to Talk’. The aim was to investigate what group work has to offer, how it works and what makes it successful.

EMC is a teachers’ development centre for secondary English and Media, with a history stretching back to our inception as the ILEA teachers’ centre for English. We run CPD, conferences, projects and write resources and magazines for the classroom, with a credo of ‘practice – theory – practice’ that reaches back to a tradition associated with Douglas Barnes, James Britton, John Richmond and others. We felt that we were in a great position both to look back, drawing on the significant thinking of the past, and to look forward, developing new insights that draw closely on reflective classroom practice.

Much of the research on the benefits of group work in our subject from the past includes key ideas about the relationship between language and thought and the social nature of language and learning (e.g. The Oracy Project and Douglas Barnes’ work) that are no longer recognised and referenced by younger generations of teachers. They may be familiar with ‘strategies’ to structure group work (jigsawing, socratic circles and such like), and generic ideas about ways of establishing groups (such as ground rules, roles, advice on the composition of groups) but these are at quite a general pedagogical level, and have little to say about a host of other issues, such as the teacher’s role in orchestrating group work, what group work is good for (and conversely what it’s not good for), how one judges its success and how it functions within particular subjects, in our case, English and Media.

“We wanted our teacher-partners to be able to choose angles they were interested in pursuing, and we wanted to be able to adapt in light of what we were discovering.”

Our exploration has no external funding, no hypothesis to be proved, no randomised control trials and no obvious end point. This runs counter to much of the current approach to educational research but seemed to us to offer a better opportunity to take our collective thinking forward and test out our ideas without the constraints and narrowing of horizons that are sometimes associated with data-driven, quantitative research, which sets out to prove something already half-proved in a trial.  Instead, we wanted to pose a set of more open-ended questions, accumulate data in the form of film clips and observational evidence of classroom interactions, pupil and teacher questionnaires and discussions, and student writing. We wanted our teacher-partners to be able to choose angles they were interested in pursuing, and we wanted to be able to adapt the questions and angles in the light of what we were discovering.

Here are just a few of the ‘themes’ that we’ve been investigating:

  1. What role does the teacher play, both in the initial set-up and in the course of the activity, in weaving between instruction, input and sharing of ideas, prodding and pushing the students to think harder, and then pulling it all together? Where does the teacher’s own knowledge come in? See EMC blog and film clips:
  2. How challenging does the task (and the material) need to be to make group work a valid choice? (The teachers working with us have recognised that if it’s all well within the capabilities of individuals, without discussion, then discussion becomes a less valid method of learning. It’s when discussion is needed,that the group work really pays its way.) See film clip here:
  3. What is the relationship between exploratory talk, in group work, and the kind of writing that students go on to do? We’ve been examining student writing on poetry and discovering that some of the more tentative ways of thinking that we value in academic writing are positively developed by exploratory group talk.  See EMC blog and student writing here:

This is research as genuine enquiry, taking us further in our thinking and then sharing those insights with other teachers.

So far, the outcomes of the research project have been powerful. We have shared short film clips of groups working together during CPD, at conferences, and through a series of blogs. These have received excited responses – sometimes with clapping and cheering, as teachers witness, with their own eyes, the serious, sustained, productive talk that can take place, under the right conditions, among 11 and 12 year olds.  The opportunity to examine and reflect upon pupils working in groups has given teachers a window onto processes that are too often ignored, and reminded us of the value of small-scale self-directed research.