Lies my teacher training taught me #3: most great learning happens in groups
‘Teachers shouldn’t just stand and teach whole class stuff. That’s an old-fashioned way of doing things. If children learn in groups consistently, then they really can learn to work together.’
Sally Barnes, Early Years Curriculum Group.
There have been three separate occasions during my teacher training where a course leader has resorted to the time-honoured pedagogical principle of ‘can’t be bothered to plan something, lets put on a video’. On all three occasions the video in question has been Ken Robinson’s talk for the RSA, ‘Changing Education Paradigms’. Now, someone could (and really should) dedicate an entire blog to what a monumental pile of nonsense this 12 minute talk is. The fact that it has nearly 9 million hits on YouTube is frankly terrifying. One of the many ill-conceived notions to spill from Robinson’s deceptively eloquent gob during his talk is the observation that ‘most great learning happens in groups’.
Today’s teachers need not be reminded of the importance of ‘group work’. Group work is an article of faith in British state schools. Until very recently, any heretic brave enough to question the wisdom of group work could expect to be professionally burnt on the pyre of OFSTED.
During the feedback for my observed lessons as a trainee teacher, my tutors and mentors would look at me quizzically and ask ‘where was the group work?’. When I responded that I saw very little need for group work in a secondary history lessons, I would be reminded that to an ‘outstanding’ lesson must contain group work. Such is the received wisdom of the educational establishment: group work is not one of many possible teaching styles with very particular benefits, it is a good in itself.
It seems that there are two ideas behind this mania for group work. One is the general disdain for whole class teaching, something I have discussed in a previous post. To borrow a horrendous cliché from the teaching profession, the modern teacher should not be a ‘sage on the stage’ but a ‘guide at the side’. Therefore, the best learning environment is one in which desks are organised into islands where pupils can work collaboratively. The teacher’s role is thus reduced to that of a classroom waiter, circulating the different groups attending to their intellectual nourishment as and when they request it.
Secondly, advocates of group work believe that ‘skills’ such as ‘teamwork’ and ‘communication’ are ends in themselves, as important to a child’s education (if not more so) than any knowledge a lesson may offer. So, a lesson on Thomas Beckett may involve small groups developing a role-play about his murder. In such a lesson, the ‘intrapersonal’ skills developed by the task would be praised. Actually learning the ins-and-outs of Beckett’s murder would be seen as of secondary importance.
In reality, group work doesn’t allow for the effective teaching of subject matter, and it doesn’t really improve pupils’ intrapersonal skills either. It fails on both counts. The normal practice of group work in a classroom goes something like this: the teacher sets pupils a group task; pupils divide into friendship groups; pupils chat about everything under the sun apart from the topic; teacher looms into earshot at which point they feign on-topic discussion. Thus a tacit agreement is reached whereby pupils pretend to work, and the teacher pretends to believe them.
Even when group work is practiced well by dedicated pupils who stay on topic, they still learn far less than they would working independently and listening to an authoritative teacher. My favourite description of group work comes from the recently deceased academic Jacques Barzun who in 1969 attacked ‘free discussion’, as it was then termed by trendy teachers. He wondered how pupils could ever be expected to create learning ‘out of pooled ignorance’.
Of course, it needs to be said that group work is beneficial in some lessons. These lessons are PE, Drama, and science (during practicals). In such lessons, the subject matter necessitates groups. The attempt to crowbar group work into lessons where the subject matter does not demand it is something quite different.
The obsession with collaborative activity goes far wider than just schools, as demonstrated by Susan Cain in her new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts. Cain is a former management consultant, who recognises that the mania for collaboration in corporate America has a clear corollary in schools. She collects together an enormous amount of evidence about the undervalued importance of working as an individual. It should be recommended reading for all trainee teachers. Cain quotes the salutary advice of Apple cofounder and all round genius Steve Wozniak. In his memoirs, he wrote, ‘I’m going to give you some advice that may be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.’
From now on, whenever I am asked where the group work is in my lessons, I respond with the same answer. The class have been put into a group of 30, and their group task is to listen to the teacher and to work in silence.