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Group Work and Cooperative Learning

Group work has always been a thorny issue for me - probably not helps by a previous school's obsession with Kagan training. Whilst I see the benefits of having students work together, talk about mathematics, and learn from each other, I am also acutely aware of the possibilities of students being off-task, and relying on others in the group to do the work for them. I guess it comes down to one question: do students learn more being in a group, or working individually? And of course, cooperative learning extends to those occasions where you might say "discuss this with your partner for 10 seconds". Here is my attempt to use educational research to find out the best practices for group work and cooperative learning.

Research Paper Title:
Cooperative Learning and Achievement: Theory and Research
Author(s): Robert E. Slavin, Eric A. Hurley and Anne Chmberlain
My Takeaway:
This is a fascinating review on the research into cooperative learning, which comes to a positive conclusion about its  potential effect on achievement. Alongside reviewing contrasting theories of cooperative learning, the paper identifies two key facts that are necessary for successful cooperative learning. The first is the importance of structuring group interactions. The concept of reciprocal teaching is discussed, with emphasis placed on the importance of the teacher modeling these interactions. Not assuming students instinctively know how to effectively work together will be a key theme of this section. Secondly, there is the issue of group goals and individual accountability. The key finding is this: cooperative learning is most consistently effective when groups are recognised or rewarded based on individual learning of their members. Without this, there is the danger that members of the group will free-ride on others' work. This is obviously tricky to do, and a suggestion from the authors is found in "my favourite quote" below. In short, groups work best when there are:
1) group goals (so pupils are working as a group and not just in a group)
2) individual accountability (so any pupil falling down on the job harms the entire group's work).
One other part of this paper I found fascinating was the section on which ability of student benefits most from cooperative learning. You could argue that high achievers could be held back by having to explain material to their low-achieving group mates. However, it would be equally possible to argue that because students who give elaborated explanations typically learn more than do those who receive them, high achievers should be the students who benefit most from cooperative learning because they most frequently give elaborated explanations. Interestingly, research has failed to provide a conclusive answer to this, and the authors remain in support of cooperative learning for all.
My favourite quote:
If students can only do as well as the group and the group can succeed only by ensuring that all group members have learned the material, then group members will be motivated to teach each other. Studies of behaviors within groups that relate most to achievement gains consistently show that students who give each other explanations (and less consistently, those who receive such explanations) are the students who learn the most in cooperative learning. Giving or receiving answers without explanation has generally been found to reduce achievement (Webb, 1989, 1992). At least in theory, group goals and individual accountability should motivate students to engage in the behaviors that increase achievement and avoid those that reduce it. If a group member wants her group to be successful, she must teach her group mates (and learn the material herself). If she simply tells her group mates the answers, they will fail the quiz that they must take individually. If she ignores a group mate who does not understand the material, the group mate will fail, and the group will fail as well.

Research Paper Title: Group Work for the Good
Author(s): Tom Bennett
My Takeaway:
Tom Bennett reviews the research in favour of group work and teaches a different conclusion. He argues that much of the research derives from the field that can be broadly termed Constructivism - the idea that students are active participants in the process of learning, and not passive recipients of experience and factual knowledge. This area has been covered in detail in the Explicit Instruction section of this page. Bennett argues that once you question the validity of constructivism, then the arguments in favour of group work start to lose their power. Bennett goes on to outline what he sees as four main drawbacks of group work:
1) Disguised inactivity - if you give a task to three or four people, one or two may realise it's time to freeze, because others will carry the burden of the task, and in the meantime, they can coast under the guise of "research" or "running the group."
2) Unequal loading - Related to this is the problem that while ever student might participate, the participation might be profoundly uneven.
3) Inappropriate Socialisation - students may end up competing to see who can discuss the task the least.
4) Unfair assessment - When a teachers praises a pupil, it's a clear one-to-one relationship, whereas in grading groups, we often must give collective grades.
For me, the key point that the author raises is the opportunity cost of group work - what else could the students be doing with their time? If Explicit Instruction could achieve the same result in 5 minutes that a group could achieve in 30 minutes, then how can we justify it? But if the activity (and the class) lends itself well to a group work activity, then the benefits of having students share ideas, learn from each other, and even something as simple as to vary the type of classroom activity to reengage students, may well be worth it.
My favourite quote:
Here's my parting advice: use group work when you feel it is appropriate to the task you want your students to achieve, and at no other time. The irony of the advocates' position is that while it correctly identifies the many benefits to using group work, their error is made when group work is preferred over other strategies because of some imagined potency, or when it is fetishized as a method imbued with miraculous properties. It isn't dogma, it isn't a panacea, and it isn't the messiah. It's one strategy among many. And it's a perfectly reasonable part of a teacher's arsenal of strategies. Not because pseudo-research has settled the matter, but because the teacher feels it appropriate at that time, for that lesson, with those children. And not before.

Research Paper Title: Group work and whole-class teaching with 11- to 14-year-olds compared
Author(s): Maurice Galtona, Linda Hargreaves and Tony Pell
My Takeaway:
This findings of this paper provide somewhat of a contrast to the one above. Here researchers compared the academic performance and classroom behaviour of pupils when taught new concepts or engaged in problem solving in sessions organised either as cooperative group work or whole class, teacher directed instruction. Comparisons of attainment were made in classes of pupils aged 11 to 14 years (Key Stage 3) in English, mathematics and science. The attainment results suggest that a grouping approach is as effective, and in some cases more effective, than when whole class teaching is used. Classroom observation indicated that there were more sustained, higher cognitive level interactions when pupils worked in groups than during whole class discussions. Crucially, the researchers argue that the group work results could be improved still further if teachers gave more attention to training pupils to work in groups and if more time was given to debriefing after group work. For me these last two points are crucial. We cannot assume students intrinsically know how to work in groups, and without training then the drawbacks that Bennett identifies in the paper above may well be realised. This possibly even extends to students talking in pairs. The next paper in this section provides a suggestion for a simple form of training. Secondly, a debrief may go some way towards providing accountability to group members. By discussing what went well and what didn't throughout the group work, and drawing attention explicitly to groups that worked well, the teacher can emphasise the point that group work is to be taken seriously, and offer directions for students to improve.
My favourite quote:
There are a number of reasons for claiming that the group work could have been more effective, to do mainly with the context in which teachers had to operate when taking part in this study. First, as part of training pupils to work effectively in groups it is vital that teachers brief and debrief the class so that they can begin to gain metacognitive awareness of what it means to be part of a group. Debriefing sessions therefore are particularly important because they not only evaluate how individuals responded in the groups but they also call for participants to make suggestions about suitable strategies for improving the situation on future occasions. After each session, observers completed a lesson overview schedule which recorded, amongst other things, whether or not briefing or debriefing had taken place. It was noticeable, however, particularly in science, that teachers rarely found time for these debriefing sessions. It was rare, for example, to observe a science lesson where the teacher with, say, five minutes of the period left preferred to keep discussion of the results over until the next lesson and instead engaged in a debriefing exercise. More often teachers preferred to use an evaluation sheet which they handed to pupils as they left the class. Thus the exercise tended to take the form of an additional homework task rather than generate a debate on the consequences of the previous classroom activity.

Research Paper Title: Teaching children how to use language to solve maths problems
Author(s): Neil Mercer and Claire Sams
My Takeaway:
This paper cites observational research which suggests that primary school children often do not work productively in group-based classroom activities, with the implication that they lack the necessary skills to manage their joint activity. To counteract this, the authors explored the role of the teacher in guiding the development of children’s skills in using language as a tool for reasoning. It involved an interventional teaching programme called Thinking Together, designed to enable children to talk and reason together effectively. The results obtained indicate that children can be enabled to use talk more effectively as a tool for reasoning; and that talk-based group activities can help the development of individuals’ mathematical reasoning, understanding and problem-solving. The important part of this study for me is that the students were explicitly shown how to effectively work in groups, with special emphasis on the language they should use, instead of assuming that they would automatically know how to do so. The lessons preceding the group work were explicitly focussed on making students aware of the need and benefit to work together. They were encouraged to discuss things and ask questions, include everyone’s ideas , ask what people think and what their reasons are , listen to each other, and so on, all of which was supported by clear modelling from the teacher. If we are going to embark upon group work (or even paired work), then such a structured approach before the task itself may well be a sensible step. However, one be aware of the relatively small sample size used in the study before drawing any significant conclusions.
My favourite quote:
More generally, our results enhance the validity of a sociocultural theory of education by providing empirical support for the Vygotskian claim that language-based, social interaction (intermental activity) has a developmental influence on individual thinking (intramental activity). More precisely, we have shown how the quality of dialogue between teachers and learners, and amongst learners, is of crucial importance if it is to have a significant influence on learning and educational attainment.