24 November 2011

The Myth of Groupwork

Today's blog post was inspired by me walking out of a class for what may be the first time in my life.  (I probably ran out of a few classes as part of childhood tantrums, but that doesn't count.)

Now I've always felt a lot of groupwork is a waste of time, because you could complete the task much quicker on your own.  But then I would say that, wouldn't I, because I always did well at school.  Theory has it that groupwork is an opportunity for the weaker students to learn off the stronger ones.

OK, so in this particular class, I've found myself being "the one who knows stuff" in pairs a few times, so I've sat as scribe and asked the other person for all the answers, and only offered anything myself when the other person wasn't sure or when I disagreed with them.  But today we were working in threes, not pairs, and for once in my life I was no longer the brainbox/swot/smart-alec because it was something I've never learned properly.  But the group scribe (not me) was writing away, filling in the "easy" ones, including quite a few I wasn't sure about.  Her and the other guy were discussing answers, and I wasn't really able to chip in, as I didn't really know how to explain what I was trying to say, or how to word a question if I had any doubts.  So I muttered a few swear words, put down my pen, and left the room.

Why wasn't I learning off the stronger students?  Quite simply because there is a difference between a good student and a good teacher: it is a teacher's job to ask questions that they already know the answer to.  Students, on the other hand, ask questions that they don't know the answer to.

What exactly was going through my classmate's head is hard to say for sure, but there's two likely explanations.
  1. She was acting in a goal-orientated way.  She had a quiz in front of her and the goal was to get all the answers, like in a pub quiz.
  2. She categorised the questions as "hard" and "easy" based on her own perception of difficulty, and only asked our opinion on the "hard" ones, assuming that we weren't interested in the "easy" ones. 
As I say, I can't say which of these (if either) was her motivation.  However, I can say that these two situations are quite possible, and indeed likely, in any classroom.

Both of these approaches introduce problems. 
  1. In a pub quiz, everyone answers questions on topics they're confident about.  People who aren't into sports might pop outside for a fag during the sports round, for example.  Unfortunately only answering questions on what you already know doesn't lead to learning.
  2. The "easy" questions are the ones we expect the weakest members of the group to answer, and we hope that by listening to the strong students answer the "hard" ones, they'll learn from them.  However, if the scribe is a strong student (and they're the ones most likely to volunteer), then the easy questions may never be asked, so the weak students never get any opportunity to do anything.  And as weak students are usually shy about their weaknesses, they're not going to butt in.
Now of course neither of these two situations is inevitable, but there are very few students who are genuinely aware of what is expected of them in groupwork -- I am only aware of it because of my own situation as a teacher.

Although I don't have any statistics to say how often these two situations arise, I can state categorically that current groupwork practices leave open the possibility that these situations arise, and it's a possibility that the teacher has little control over or visibility of.

Perhaps the teacher is also blinded by a task-orientated mindset.  When we see that the task is completed and the students have the correct answers, how often do we ask ourselves how they reached those answers?   Can we ever truly know?  I think not.

And that is why I called this post "the myth of groupwork".  I am not saying there's no such thing as groupwork, but that groupwork is something we take on faith, uncritical of the facts or evidence.

As teachers we cannot directly control our students' thoughts, but we must take steps to reduce the possibilities for them to complete tasks in pedagogically pointless ways.  Current groupwork practice opens up too many "wrong paths", and that needs to change.


Anonymous said...

"it is a teacher's job to ask questions that they already know the answer to"

Really? If a teacher asks 'what is the fastest colour, red or black?' should he/she 'know' the answer? Or should the teacher seek to explore different answers and reason logically?

Check out P4C and the work of James Nottingham. Ditto the '... for Learning' books and 'Towards Dialogic Teaching'.

Nìall Beag said...

I see your point, but the vast majority of questions raised in a modern classroom are questions aimed at evaluating student knowledge.

The point of my post wasn't to pigeon-hole teachers as "question askers", but to identify a problem with groupwork.

You cannot be arguing that teachers are not trained to ask questions they already know the answer to. And I doubt you would argue that natural communication doesn't involve asking questions that you already know the answer to, except for specific rhetorical purposes.

So my point stands: an untrained individual is unlikely to ask a peer a question if he already knows the answer to it -- so groupwork fails to achieve its goals in the situation where tasks have specific correct answers.