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.


2 thoughts on “Group Work for Humans

  1. Pingback: Trending for Tweetchers March 8th 2013 » The Learning Workshop

  2. Sue Cowley

    Hello Rachael, I love the euros/payment idea – thanks for that!

    I also love what you say about Ofsted/progress/teachers not being allowed to be human any more. You are so right.

    I honestly don’t think that group work is ‘educational guff’. Just like you I think it’s a totally valid method for learning. Of course it has to be managed properly, but so does everything else in the classroom. Above all else, group work is fantastic for differentiation.

    Here’s an interesting exercise I use when I’m doing training sessions, to show teachers just how valuable it is to work in a group. First, I get them to do the well known ‘thinking outside the box’ exercise completely on their own (join 9 dots, using only 4 straight lines, without taking your pen off the paper). At first, they must do it alone, in complete silence, without looking at anyone else’s work. Of course, some get totally stuck, others finish it easily, others give up quickly (just like the kids). As soon as I allow them to interact and share their thinking within a group, the atmosphere in the room totally changes.

    Thanks again for a very interesting blog post.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.