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Cohen (1994), states that group work refers to students working in groups which are small enough for everyone to carry out a specific task. A key feature of group work is the teacher delegating tasks to students enabling them to work together as a group without interference (Cohen 1994; McLean 1967). In this essay we will discuss the different elements of group work and how it can be utilised within the classroom to enhance student learning outcomes. We will also outline the challenges that accompany group work and how these can be overcome.
Group work and cooperative learning are intrinsically linked. Petty (2009) describes cooperative learning as the name given to a group of distinct teaching approaches that are organised to accomplish specific features thought to enhance learning. Collaboration is also an important element of group work. Research which has been conducted by Brown, (1995 cited in Blumenfield, 1996) portrays collaboration as a strategy that can enable students to develop awareness of their topic and to acquaint them with values and disciplinary language.
During our research for this assignment we found that there are a number of theorists who have contributed to group work pedagogy. Dewey, (1916 cited in Bransford et al, 2000) states that students working in groups will learn through engaging in active processes and doing. Bransford et al, (2000, p 132) subsequently added to this saying that 'students need to understand the current state of their knowledge and to build on it, improve it and make decisions in the face of uncertainty', which can be aided by working in groups. Rogoff, (1990 cited in Blatchford et al, 2003) has stated that both Vygotsky, (1978) and Piaget (1928) have contributed to group work pedagogy. Passer et al, (2009) describes how Piaget has contributed to this area through outlining that knowledge should be constructed by the child and the learning activities should equal the level of the conceptual development of each stage. Joffrion, (2011) has recognised through the work of Piaget (1928) that students must be "actively involved in learning activities that are self-initiated". As a result of their work, Rogoff (1990) believes that children's thinking is a function of prior knowledge and the individual's capacity to learn can improve with help from either adults or peers resulting in collaborative learning. We believe that involving students in group work provides an opportunity for this learning to take place by being involved in a group environment.
However, the act of putting groups together does not mean that successful learning will automatically take place as groups do not immediately result in more committed, ambitious and productive students (Blumenfield et al 1996; Gillies 2003). This is because in every classroom a teacher will be faced with a room of students that can be of mixed gender, ability and personality. Blumenfield et al (1996) believe that for beneficial group work to evolve students must take chances, differ with and listen to others, share ideas and create and resolve points of view. For group work to be effective in this environment the teacher must consider a number of factors that will impact on its success. The results of our research demonstrate that setting up group work activities involves a number of decisions about the logistics of their organisation. Bennett and Dunne (1992) say a teacher needs to understand the dynamics of group work before results can be seen.
Kyriacou (1991) suggests that a number of items must be considered when constructing groups including; the size of the group, the communication of instructions to the pupils and the objectives of the work to be carried out. Bennett and Dunne (1992) emphasize the selection of groups, the creation of appropriate tasks and designating authority to the student that best fits the role as being important functions for the teacher. Gillies (2003) adds to this list by asserting the importance of having mixed abilities within the group and achieving a gender balance. A teacher must also be conscious of the time that they spend with each group. Kyriacou, (1991) has reminded teachers that it is important to limit the time spent with each group and only to intervene to check progress and help with difficulties and concerns. The emphasis should be on facilitating the work of the group.
We, as teachers, want to create an environment for our students that will enhance learning for all. An important consideration for us, as teachers, is to realise when a student is struggling. Group work is a tool that caters for those students with a low level of ability, encouraging them to interact and learn from fellow classmates. As teachers, we sometimes do not understand what it is that the student does not comprehend. This is because our knowledge of the subject is greater than that of our students. By grouping students of similar but not exactly the same ability together, they can learn from one another. Furthermore, it is important to note that students have a tendency to understand the concepts of their peers as there is a particular language that only they understand (Bargh and Schul 1980). For the purpose of this assignment we were asked to prepare lesson plans based on an Ordinary Level Class and this combined with the reasons outlined above is another reason why we incorporated group work into our lesson. Using the literature as a guide we have incorporated different types of group work into our lesson. These include the following:
This method will be used to enable students to create a list of factors to be considered when calculating a premium. To aid this process we used the pearl drop graphic organiser as a method to help students organise their ideas. SLSS (2008) have stated that students working in groups can use the thought shower as a guide for their work, increasing the quantity and quality of their ideas.
Pair work which is a form of group work was chosen to assist students to develop ideas and evoke discussion collectively in the classroom. In pairs, students developed methods of reducing risk with their peers. Whitaker (1995) as cited in Kyriacou, (1997, p 51) has argued that pair work "facilitates the growth of understanding by offering the optimum opportunity for pupils to talk reflectively with each other". Blumenfield et al, (1996) go on to say that peer learning can be a powerful tool in enhancing students learning experiences.
Pair work is an important pedagogy for teachers as it can be used as a stepping stone for using more group work within the classroom. A teacher can use pair work to establish the ground rules for this type of activity with the students before progressing to larger groups.
Following on, we decided to use group role play to describe a scenario to the class. The role play encourages students to become confident with material.It also increases active learning in the classroom environment. Active learning techniques such as role play contribute significantly to fostering self-control, self-discipline and self-confidence in the student. (Curriculum online website, accessed 3/11/2012) Kyriacou, (1991) has stated that role plays can be used in the classroom to include more students and give them an increased say in the completion of learning activities. Petty, (2009) has argued that role play in the classroom is a valuable method to inspire students to identify with real life situations.
However, going forward it must be recognised that there are challenges to using group work. As a result of these concerns Frykedal and Chiriac (2011) say that numerous sources have found that collective time in the classroom is being reduced in favour of individual time. They found that there were two main reasons for this. One reason is that it was felt that group work and the resulting student interactions can be difficult to control (Williams and Sheridan 2010 cited in Frykedal and Chiriac 2011) According to Kyriacou (1991) "some teachers are reluctant to make use of co-operative activities because they fear that by relinquishing tight control over the learning activities, it will be harder to sustain good order". (Kyriacou, 1991 p.41). Lotan (2008 cited in Frykedal and Chiriac 2011) believes another reason is that teachers do not have the knowledge to organise group work and manage it successfully.
However, in stark contrast to this decrease in classwork in the classroom Gardner and Korth (2010) discuss the increase in group work in the business world and how companies now want employees who can work, interact and lead effectively in groups. Due to this demand it is important that schools and academic programs find a way to incorporate group work in to the teaching of their curriculums (Gardner and Korth 2010). Looking forward the introduction of the new Junior Certificate syllabus in Ireland, will place increased emphasis on active learning with the potential for group work to become a greater part of the curriculum. Dealing with the concerns of teachers that group work can be difficult to manage, Kyriacou (1986) believes that although some students may lack the skills and maturity to be successful in a group environment that the primary benefit of group work is the development of these skills and the fostering of maturity
Through our research we believe we have demonstrated the benefits and advantages of group work in the classroom. Studies show that successful group work encourages (1) pupil interactions that elevate higher - order thinking and reasoning; (2) cognitive processing including interpreting, integrating and organizing data; (3) taking account of others ideas and viewpoints; and (4) those involved in the group, providing encouragement and accepting others ideas (Bossert 1989 cited in Blumenfield et al 1996). We feel this demonstrates the benefits of group work both for the teacher and the students.
When discussing the benefits of groupwork we deem that the final word should be left with the students. Colbeck et al (2000) found that the students that they interviewed felt that membership of a group led to enhance problem solving, communication and conflict management skills. Studies carried out with college students indicates that attitudes towards learning, perseverance in college and academic achievement can all be enhanced by participation in group work (Springer et al 1999 cited in Colbeck et al 2000).