Author Archives: murphiegirl

Group Work for Humans

Why for Humans?

Well, at a time where the word ‘outstanding’ has perhaps the most loaded and misinterpreted meaning in education right now, there is an unreasonable pressure for teachers to teach in a super-human way. We are
seemingly required to promote visible learning as their students make rapid, sustained progress; we need to provide enjoyment at the same time as rigour and probably add extra calcium to their little bones as they do so.

But we are human; we make mistakes; we cock things up (royally sometimes). We have great lessons, great days, great weeks even; we inspire some students and we occasionally make lives a tiny bit better. And I can’t recall observing a lesson or supporting a colleague or visiting a school where the teachers aren’t trying their hardest to be better. It’s just sometimes they don’t know how.

One of the ways to support teachers in doing this is to instill them with the confidence to try new things out. And also to learn to structure their strategies so they can recognise where good-quality learning is taking place; reflect on what works and what might not and why.

At #Pedagoolondon on March 2nd, Tom Bennett warned against junk research in education. Imagine my little face just 15 minutes after presenting on group work in the room next door when I saw Tom’s ‘Rogue’s Gallery’ of the worst offenders in educational guff, with Group Work placed just a few places below Thinking Hats. Oh the shame! Oh the irony!

But after suppressing the desire to immediately run away to sea to be a sailor like Piglet when he realised his Terrible Mistake with the Heffalump, I reflected on what we were being asked to think about. As with most educational medicine, we’re sometimes too eager for a cure to all classroom ills to swallow it all in one go, without a thought for the side-effects or long-term damage.

The mistake is to assume that group work is THE best way for children to learn. I certainly don’t think this is the case. However, the ability to use group work well and where appropriate is an extremely useful string to your bow as a flexible practitioner. After using lots of group work in my teaching repertoire over the last 5 years especially, I also believe strongly that it can increase students’ confidence in quality discussion; their ability to work well with others and it presents lots of opportunities to problem-solve, consider alternative viewpoints and work under their own initiative.

I would imagine that every teacher that presented at #Pedagoolondon gave those who attended much food for thought, some practical ideas and, most importantly, the confidence to try some things out that they may have considered too risky or lacking in worth. I expect some critics might feel that the Box of Tricks is just that: a collection of gimmicks that promise much and devalue skills. Maybe so. But it also strikes me that the Box of Tricks can also act in the same way as Dumbo’s Magic Feather.

Remember Dumbo, the elephant that could fly? He was convinced that his magic feather gave him the ability to do the things he never believed he could do. One day – rather inconveniently, when he was plummeted towards the ground during a perilously high launch – he dropped his feather but before he hit the ground, realised that he COULD fly unaided. He didn’t need the feather after all, but it had given him what he’d originally needed: confidence.

I don’t use my Box of Tricks much these days. (Except the Euros. I love the Euros! Some of my students have insisted on roll-overs and bank accounts before now.) I don’t need the tricks because my groups are well-versed in how to behave in a range of situations: groups, pairs, solo, upside-down, etc. They’ve been trained and I feel confident.

So I’d argue that the Box of Tricks could well give a colleague the confidence to try something that might refresh their practice; encourage them to re-think a mindset or support them in giving opportunities to students
who might otherwise slip under the radar, I’d say there’s nothing tricksy about that.

Here is the Prezi I used in my presentation for #Pedagoolondon.

And here’s a guide to group work that our Teaching & Learning group created when we made our Box of Tricks, updated for 2013.

Why do Group Work?

Students with good team working skills are likely to be better at problem-solving and resolving conflict. It is an
important skill throughout school and beyond and is valued highly by universities and employers.

Vygotsky’s hypothesis makes a link between social activity (the ‘intermental’) and individual development (the
‘intramental’). In human language, if students are encouraged to ‘rehearse’ their thoughts aloud before committing them to paper or becoming stuck in their initial thoughts, firstly, they recognise how to refine and clarify ideas. Even better, if they are challenged or supported in these vocal ideas, they are
encouraged to extend ideas further.

Narrowing Gaps

Many subjects are mastered through dialogue and discussion

Good group work promotes inclusivity. Many FSM students (and other students) that under-achieve lack confidence when working with others. They are often exposed to poor quality levels of discussion and mostly colloquial levels of dialogue. Exposure and access to technical language and higher order speech on a regular basis is crucial in raising standards for these students.

Many FSM students underachieve as they lack confidence with others; they might seem to lack effort in the attempts to slip off the teacher’s radar – give them opportunities to grow in confidence and take ownership in the way more confident students take for granted.

Mercer (2000) states that engaging in collaborative talk improves ability of children to think together critically
and constructively.

Good group work also gives G&T students the chance to reinforce knowledge, to consider alternative interpretations through ideas of others (an A* skill in English)
How do we make sure our groups function effectively?

Studies have shown that the most effective groups are ones in which high levels of communication and organisation are found.

Here are a few of the issues that must be addressed in order for a group to function effectively:

  • Establishing success criteria
  • Agreed allocation of roles (preferably by the students themselves)
  • Conflict
  • Criticism
  • Responsibilities

Starting Group Work

Sorting the groups

You decide: You could, of course, sort your classes into groups that you have carefully decided on. This might help eliminate problems when potentially disruptive students end up together or you end up with a group of very quiet/shy characters. You might be tempted to sort by personality or maybe by ability (but ability in what? Try to avoid making assumptions on students’ performance in other areas).

I usually sort groups completely randomly, using the animal cards or more often than not, just numbers scribbled on desks with a dry-wipe and giving the students numbers as they troop in. This also usually stops friends bunching together as they come in in their packs and numbers immediately split them up.

Random groups have very often resulted in the most surprising of collaborators that on paper seem  the very definition of chaos, but in reality produce surprising and very pleasing results. Try it. And if it goes wrong, just move someone. It’s your classroom, your task. You’re the boss.

If you change the groups on a regular basis, it will allow students opportunities to become more flexible and willing to adapt; it will mean that ‘problem’groups don’t have the chance to get used to one another; and it will discourage complacency and laziness from others who know that other students will do much of the organisation and hard work.

Sorting ‘Random’ Groups – some ideas


Give them out and ask students to write their names on the end of their lollystick. You now have a class set of sticks that you can pick out of a hat to sort groups. (Also good for no-hands-up questioning – AfL)


One set is sellotaped to the desk assigning each place to a number. Use the second set in a hat for students
to pick as they enter the room to determine their place for that lesson.


Give each students a category card (we’ve provided animals!) and then get them to find the rest of their group for the task.

Co-ordinating & Monitoring Group Work

Aims in group work:

Students to create sufficient self-regulation and responsibility for teachers to feel confident about using
active and interactive learning strategies for students to feel that they can take part enthusiastically in whole-class and small-group activities without fear of negative consequences from their peers[1]

Focuses and Frameworks

Use the “Successful Group Work” laminated posters:

One for each group to keep them on track. They could use whiteboard pens to tick off where they are.

Remind students of the skills they need for successful group work. You could also use the “Working Together” statements in the same way as above: collecting/allocating statements when they feel they have achieved them during or after the task.

For formal assessment of oral skills/speaking and listening:

Create cards with specific assessment criteria on. As previously, students ‘collect’cards when they think they have
hit that criteria. Can be done during or after; individually or collectively.

Use tokens/Euros: Allocate a set number of counters, button, post-its to group members. They give one away each time they make a contribution, to ensure each member makes an equal contribution.

You can also use tokens to reward good group work as it goes along: don’t just reward the loudest, most confident
students; praise a reward the ones who listen well, who negotiate, who scribe, who mediate, etc. The Euros can also be used for this, and added to the final tally for the lesson’s work.

Encourage independence:

Use Euros (or whatever reward tokens you’ve chosen) to reward good ongoing work but also be prepared to fine groups if their members aren’t on task. If they want to ask you a question, let them. They are often questions that could be easily answered themselves, so offer the answer the question but charge them for your answer (I charge 10 Euros, which I think is a bargain but the students don’t tend to agree!) This will cut down the amount of ‘lazy’ questions being asked.

Use coloured markers:

When asking them to contribute equally to a mind-map, posters or flip-chart, give students one differently-coloured marker each, which they are not allowed to swap. Easy to see how proportionate the contributions have been.

Use time limits:

Quick tip: It’s easy to dedicate too much time to any particular group as you circulate. It’s sometimes necessary to intervene but you need to keep moving to encourage on-task behaviour and promote independence. Avoid turning your back on the majority of the class as you circulate by imagining you’re wearing a hospital gown with no pants on. Still want to turn your back on the class? Skirt the edges instead –for obvious reasons!

Evaluating Group Work

This is probably the most important element of group work. Students need to be able to reflect on their performance; understand what went well and what didn’t – and why.

They need to know how they can improve on their roles and responsibilities in group work and thus improve on their self-esteem and confidence when working with others in a range of challenging activities.

Learning Audits:

(Good for when groups are in categories). Create a little league table on the board for each of the named groups. As you circulate, award each group a smiley at different times of the lesson to indicate how well they are
working on task. If not all members are on task, they can’t get the reward.

It’s even quicker to use the Euros like this too. Even better, ask a student to conduct an audit by standing up and
observing the groups’ behaviour. Can they identify what an ‘on task’ group looks like? Who would they like to reward as a result?

Responsibility‘pizza’ charts:

A ‘wheel’ divided into 16 wedges. Groups assign each member a colour and shade it in to show who has taken the most responsibility for the work. You can use little individual ones or big ones between groups. Can be completed together or individually, although filling it in together allows students to take responsibility for their
roles/contributions and encourages group ownership.

“Framed!”[2]evaluation sheets:

Little sheets of paper divided into quarters and headed: “How I helped my group”; “How I hindered my group”; “How others helped my group” and “How others hindered my group”.
These can be completed individually without sharing. It’s very easy to get students to copy this format onto
post-its if you show them the frame on the board. Collect the post-its at the end of the lesson and you have feedback that you can compare to your own understanding of the success of the lesson, ready to pick up with students at the beginning of the next one. I actually get the students to divide post-its into quarters and head them up themselves – much quicker and saves on the photocopying. This can help if some students feel they are taking too much responsibility for the bulk of the work. As with the pizza charts, eflect on the findings and act on them next lesson so students know you follow things up.

It’s important with this to name behaviours, not names.

Pay Day Money!:

Euros – or whatever tokens you decided to use – to be divided up as payment for contributions to task – group to jointly decide on pay. The tangible nature of the money and the doling out of it at the end of a task works very well in my experience; the students are scrupulously fair!

Post-its: Secret or public evaluations on post-its by group members.

Traffic lights / target charts / blob trees:

To show success in group tasks according to set criteria.

Formal assessment:

Peer or teacher-led, using official assessment criteria.

[1] [2]From:The Teacher’s Toolkit by Paul Ginnis

If you’d like a kick-start with your group work, DM me via Twitter and I’ll email you some of the tricks to you to laminate, chop up and add to.


What was the question?

A couple of years ago I attended a Teaching & Learning conference which included a session by Geoff Petty, author of “Evidence-Based Teaching” and “Teaching Today”, pretty much one of the bibles of ITT and which also should really be on the shelf of every Hattie fan. His session gave me an enormous amount of food for thought as it outlined a number of questioning strategies but it also encouraged us to analyse how effective each one might be.

The precise questioning strategies you adopt can make a huge difference to the proportion of students that participate, both mentally and verbally, in your lessons. There are lots of brilliant blog posts around at the moment detailing the power of the question. As @Headteacherguru maintains in this post, skilled teachers will use teacher-talk time to use their questioning to develop understanding, accelerate learning and promote inclusivity.

The work I’ve been involved with in the past few years on narrowing the gap with FSM and PP students has shown me just how important questioning can be in developing engagement with those students who lack confidence and actively avoid engagement, one of the key factors in the gap in attainment between FSM and non-FSM students.

With questioning, what’s not to love? They are ready-made strategies that cost nothing and can be used immediately with any class in any subject. But perhaps before you get going, you might want to take a little time to reflect on which methods are most effective at any one time and which might have a positive – or negative – impact on your students.

A great – and quick – CPD exercise is for teachers to work in pairs or threes and work through these definitions and then attempt an exercise suggested below. Discussing each method will clarify just what is involved in each one, often the best way to come to realisations about things you might be taking for granted in your teaching repertoire, and also immensely useful when supporting colleagues who might be a bit stuck in their ways

So here are some questioning strategies that you may well be using already.

This process will allow you to reflect and analyse. Each example of a questioning strategy is accompanied with a brief summary of what each one involves, taken mostly from Petty’s own definitions.  If you used this in CPD, you might want to add some of your own. Discussing each method first is essential if you are going to analyse their effectiveness afterwards.

1        Question and answer: volunteers answer

  • Usually done with hands up or students calling out answers
  • Teacher chooses if there is more than one volunteer
  • Thinking time is usually less than 1 second (0.7 average!)
  • Low participation rate: students learn that if they don’t answer they won’t be asked to contribute
  • Students calling out reduces the thinking time of others

2        Question and answer: nominees answer

  • Students nominated by teacher answer questions asked by teacher
  • “Pose, Pause, Pounce”
  • See also “Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce” which passes responses round; encourages better answers and promotes inclusivity, detailed brilliantly here by @Teachertoolkit
  • Can be used to focus students who do not appear to be engaged

3        Buzz Groups: volunteers answer

  • Teacher asks each group in turn to contribute part of the answer, e.g. “Can you give me one advantage of this method? …Can another group give us another?…” etc.
  • A volunteer answers for each group
  • Called ‘buzz groups’ because of the buzz of conversation created while they work

4        Buzz Groups: nominees answer

  • As before, but teacher nominates a student in each group who will contribute the group’s answers
  • Teacher only chooses which student will give answer after the group discussion
  • Therefore, all group members are more likely to engage, listen and try to understand, as any of them might
    be required to explain
  • Again, teacher can choose student they think has least engaged!

5        Assertive Questioning

  • Buzz groups work on a thought-provoking question
  • Teacher asks individuals to give the group’s answer
  • Individuals usually nominated by teacher but could be volunteers from the group
  • Teacher gets a number of answers without giving correct answer away
  • Whole class is encouraged to discuss the various answers and agree – and justify – a ‘class answer’
  • Minority views are allowed but the aim is consensus
  • Only when the class has agreed its answer does the teacher ‘give away’ the correct answer

6        Pair checking

  • Pairs then compare answers
  • Each individual says something positive about their partner’s answer and one thing that would improve it
  • Teacher then gives correct answer
  • Pairs can then join into fours and suggest further improvements to one another’s answers (Think – Pair – Share)
  • Teacher listens to students conversations as s/he circulates

7        Mini whiteboards

  • Students have A4 whiteboards /laminated cards and dry-wipe pens
  • Teacher asks question, students all write their answers
  • Teacher waits until all students have an answer; optionally students check their neighbours’ answers
  • Teacher asks students to hold answers up all at the same time. Students look round to see what classmates
    have written
  • Teacher surveys all of the boards
  • Teacher clarifies any misunderstandings

Evaluating these methods
Before using any of the strategies outlined, or before developing your own, consider these very important characteristics and decide which questioning methods deliver the most effect.

Participation Rate

  • How high is the proportion of students who are engaged in trying to answer the question?
  • How many ‘passengers’ might this method allow?

Teacher’s feedback

  • To what extent does the teacher get representative feedback on the quality of students’ reasoning and understanding in the class?

Students’ feedback

  • What kind of feedback are the students getting about the quality of their understanding?
  • Ideally, students should be able to improve their understanding as a result of this questioning strategy.

Thinking time

  • How much time does a student have to think productively about the question, and then the quality of their answer?

Student comfort

  • This is a big one for the FSM students and your other under-achievers.
  • How ‘on the spot’ do students feel using this type of questioning?
  • How likely are they to feel humiliated and/or uncomfortable by the teacher or by others in the class?
  • What can be done to create a ‘safe’/ ‘no blame’ environment?

Of course, you can adapt and change the questioning methods you are most keen on using, but always useful to include the ‘hands up’ type strategies too as it spells out in no uncertain terms what impact can be expected if this is the primary method used. The rating system we used is based on our reporting symbols, substituting Satisfactory for Weak in this case (* = Outstanding; G = Good; W = Weak; P = Poor). You can use any of course, but best to have 4 ratings rather than 3 as there is likelihood of the middle ground constantly being opted for.

Participation Rate Teacher’s Feedback Students’ Feedback Thinking Time Student Comfort
Q&A – Volunteers answer
Q&A – Nominees answer
Buzz Groups – Volunteers answer
Buzz Groups
Assertive Questioning
Pair- Checking
Mini Whiteboards

This exercise isn’t designed to give conclusive and absolute answers: it gives instead an excellent opportunity for teachers to evaluate teaching strategies and open up a dialogue about teaching and learning, which is always a brilliant place to start.

The really interesting part about this method is that you will find that some methods, the ones that we’d expect to score highly across the board simply don’t, when it comes to student comfort.
These methods are designed to include all and to promote progress, and many of your under-achievers will find that very hard to stomach. The key here then, as with any strategy I guess, if that you need to put some effort into making it work and to creating an environment where it’s OK to fail and learn from mistakes.

“Teaching Today” Geoff Petty (2009)

“Evidence Based Teaching” Geoff
Petty (2009) 4th ed.

FiSH and Tips

(Sorry about the terrible title – try to find it in your hearts to forgive me!)

We’ve been looking for some ways to improve peer feedback in our marking and assessment. As a school we have agreed on a model that is based on:

1/3 ‘Flick and Tick’ (an acknowledgement of work done in draft books: notes, planning, etc.)
1/3 Self or peer assessment
1/3 Close teacher marking and detailed feedback

Which is all well and good but, as we know, the quality of student feedback can be patchy:

“Dis is mint!!! Luv it!!! <3 😛

“I love the way you have coloured in Thomas Hardy’s moustache”

“This is well crap.”

So I loved the blogpost by @lisajaneashes here: which detailed the idea of Kind, Specific, Helpful feedback framework originally developed by Ron Berger. I thought Lisa’s blogpost perfectly illustrated how students might grasp an understanding of it through the fishes metaphor. (You’ll have to read it really or you’ll think I’m barking, because fish feature a fair bit in this post).

So I took the Kind Specific Helpful idea to school and tried it out on a few colleagues, and, to make it clear, I thought it would be useful to demonstrate it by showing the process as we went along, using @lisajaneashes’ analogy of improving the drawing of a fish.

I drew a really simple fish (literally a one-line drawing with a dot for an eye)

And then I asked each person “What do you think of my fish?” Most people replied that it “seemed OK” (although one member of SLT did say “It’s a bit crap”. Way to boost my self-esteem, Alan!)

So then I asked “What do you think of it if I said it’s supposed to be realistic?” and each person this time agreed it wasn’t the best! (Al said “It’s even crapper than I thought then.”)

I said I needed some help to make it better… BUT they had to make their feedback Kind Specific and Helpful. (KIND, Alan, Kind.)

And then the process started whereby they acted – much like the students in Lisa’s blog – to give much better guidance.

So I drew another line fish – either on paper or on a whiteboard each time – and improved it using their advice, but they weren’t allowed to draw it for me; they had to explain to me what I needed to do and I would act on their KSH advice, e.g.

“Maybe make the mouth rounder and have bubbles coming out.”

“Draw some scales on the fish.”

“Do some fins.”

“Make the tail bigger and draw little lines along it so we can see its texture.”

After a little while, we had a much better, more realistic fish. And we compared it to the original version and agreed that it was 1) greatly improved and 2) the K.S.H. feedback had made it so.

Yes, OK, it’s not brilliant but surely an improvement, and you can see what I mean…

I went through this process several times with different colleagues and each time the process – and delight in the process – was great.

It was when I was showing it to some of my English colleagues that one of them had a bit of a brainwave. “If you changed ‘Kind’ to ‘Friendly’, it would almost look like FiSH feedback: F.S.H. rather than K.S.H.”. Brilliant!

I ran it all past some of my classes before embarking on some peer feedback and the responses and quality of feedback was fabulous. Other colleagues agreed when they tried it with their own classes, in a range of subjects.

So then I designed a poster using this as the framework for use in classrooms in every subject. We introduced it across school and now everyone knows what ‘FiSH feedback’ is so it’s now part of our vocabulary.

I’m indebted to @lisajaneashes for kindly allowing me to ‘magpie’ her thoughts and write about this as an example of how other teachers’ ideas can develop and grow from one idea to another.

Cross-posted from Ed-U-Like