What I have learned about “group work”

I love working with colleagues to solve problems: I am happy to lead in discussing problems, garnering the experience of others and coming to conclusions.  I adore  working with my Headteacher colleagues, particularly @headsroundtable, to share experience, exchange ideas and develop policy.  I am happy to serve on a number of working parties for thinktanks, DfE and the Church of England where I learn and contribute in equal measure and feel I am doing good.  These real life working experience examples are, however, so far removed from the horror of “group work” when in formal learning experiences as to have almost no relevance.  We subject learners to group work because it “develops the skills needed in later life”; except it really doesn’t.

When I was a teacher in the 1980s I felt a bit embarrassed that my students and I all seemed to like teacher-led discussion best. I used to throw into lesson plans various types of group work every now and then, and I believed that there was something deeply inadequate in my teaching ability because students always seemed to learn best when I led.  I never, ever spoke about this and as I “rose through through the ranks”, I just gave it less and less thought.

 No-one could ever accuse me of being a “shrinking violet”, but I quite literally want to die on INSETs when I have to do role play: I hate it and I learn nothing from it.  The worst was the “triads”:  my wonderful SLE Team, who run INSET days, put us in groups of threes (randomly) to share teaching experiences about something or other.  I was mortified – I was the Principal – were the other two meant to pretend they had forgotten that fact?  Was I?  To rescue their learning I think I invented an urgent phone call or something, which also saved my embarrassment.  You see, I may appear not to be, and I am comfortable to lead, but underneath I really am a very shy person.  When I know what I am doing I am comfortable – I am confident; but outside of my comfort zone, I want to dig a big hole, jump in it and cover it up as quickly as possible.  (I send Lynne into the “balancing a warm glass of white wine and making small talk events” on my behalf.)

When I did my MBA (fairly recently) I was subjected to some truly appalling group work situations. At its best it reminded me of being back at school in the ’70s, and at its worst it caused the crumbling of personalities during a highly-pressurised residential situation.

The worst I still can’t bring myself to write about:  a course designed for senior leaders, across many sectors, that I unfortunately attended and that was based on Gestalt principles: I remember spending 5 days watching bullies given the freedom to bully in complete horror.

Having come to terms with the fact that I “am not normal” in a whole variety of ways I think I was floating through life thinking that “group work” was by and large a “good thing”, and keeping my mouth shut about my private dislike.  Then, about a year ago, I was driving back to Yorkshire with Roisin as my only passenger and she began to outline in graphic detail her deep seated loathing of group work.  It went something like this:

  • Teachers deliberately put you with people who aren’t like you so you “can learn from each other” (eye roll).
  • The people you are with never want to work, often simply expecting a single person to do it all due to their reputation as smart and “if you try to get them working, well, it isn’t worth the grief”.
  • It makes those single people resent the rest of their group.
  • Eventually you decide to just do the work because you need the marks and don’t want to score low marks and “they just let you – it was exactly what they expected to happen”.
  • The teachers never realise what has gone on despite how obvious it may be.
  • Then when the group gets good marks, because you have done all the work, you just feel resentful because the others do not deserve the commendation.
  • And at the end of it all, people still belittle you for your attitude to learning after taking full advantage of it.

Well this description was very different to any I would have given, but it had the complete ring of truth.

So now I am prepared to “come out” about group work:

  • fabulous when appropriate and indulged in by the willing of similar interests and abilities
  • should never be forced
  • is not necessary to all learning

But if you want me to really rant these days, mention peer assessment ………….


About rosmcm1962

30 years in teaching. Experienced Headteacher, Principal, Executive Principal, CEO of Academy Trust and NLE. Now working independently in the sector.
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2 Responses to What I have learned about “group work”

  1. Pingback: The day I persuaded Ofsted to change their grade of my lesson | pedagog in the machine

  2. Pingback: TES article: In defence of group work | pedagog in the machine

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