A Natural Theory of Group Work

Theory: group work is a natural phenomenon that comes about when motivated people independently realise that they need to share their ideas with others and open their own ideas up for scrutiny.

I’ve been teaching problem-solving this year. Every week my year 7 and 8 classes get two problems. The first is a ‘taught’ problem. They explore the problem and try to solve it, but receive extensive help along the way, such as the steps of a strategy or worked examples of a very similar problem. The second is a ‘practice’ problem. It will be similar to the taught problem, but differ in at least one respect. They receive much less help here, as it is a chance to practice what they learned from the taught problem.
The aim of this is to prepare students to solve interesting problems later on in their lives, be it in academia or the ‘real world’. And in both these cases, interesting problems are more often than not solved in groups.
Since beginning teaching I’ve tried many different ways of doing group work. I’ve allocated different roles, used word frames, scripts and strange restrictions to try and bring about the group dynamics I wanted, but it’s never quite worked.
So for problem-solving lessons I’ve done it differently. 
  1. Students get given a problem, and begin working on it – on their own and in silence. There’s a time limit on this, and a timer on the board. They will not be allowed to discuss with another person for somewhere between 6 and 10 minutes.
  2. Once the time limit has passed, students are allowed to discuss with a partner and compare strategies. Typically they’ll have to report back in some way for me to assess how they’re doing.
  3. Once pairs have converged on strategies they’re allowed to discuss with other pairs to reach consensus in a bigger group.
This has led to the most productive group work I’ve ever seen, and am convinced it’s because of the silent working at the start. 
This period of silence gets every student familiar with the problem. It’s so long that they have to start thinking about it; to sit and wait for someone else in the group to give them the answer would be too boring for even the most hardened work avoider. So after accepting that they may as well start thinking, they get interested. An intrinsic motivation to solve it kicks in, and students want to figure it out.
It’s this desire that leads to productive group work. I’ve found in these lessons that groups come together largely organically. In one lesson this week the silence went on for about ten minutes after the timer stopped – nobody was ready to discuss. Then some people got more certain of their ideas, we’re ready to compare and subject them to scrutiny, and started pairing up. Once pairs got joint strategies and started making real progress, they wanted to check with others and formed small workgroups, each pair taking on a different angle but the results being pooled.

It was how truly productive groups work. People, motivated to solve a problem, who realise that their best chance lies in subjecting their ideas to scrutiny and working together.

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