Group work in Primary Schools

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Group work, known to others as collaborative or cooperative learning, is defined as a "situation in which, two or more people learn or attempt to learn something together" [Wikipedia Contributors, 2010]. This paper focuses on how working collaboratively impacts both teaching and learning in primary schools. It describes the background to the development of collaborative learning and highlights the techniques often employed. The principles to effective group work are explained, with both advantages and disadvantages noted.

Collaborative learning is a pedagogical strategy which utilizes a variety of learning activities to enhance a student's understanding of a particular topic. This is an improvement to traditional learning models also defined as non-interactive lectures, where knowledge is gained from direct lectures or the reading of books and articles. Traditional learning commands very little interaction or participation from the students, therefore a lot or very little may be learnt depending on the individual. Collaborative learning consequently stands as a constructivist approach to learning, and is identified as originating from a constructivist epistemology, as students are asked to participate and contribute to their own learning and development.

The ideas of scholars such as Burner, Kohlberg, Piaget and Vygotsky are used in the development of collaborative learning, which essentially implies that both the student and the environment are actively dynamic entities in the learning process as the student tries to impersonate the lessons. This process requires that knowledge be discovered and translated using language and other learning aides to which the students can actively relate.

Lawrence Kohlberg researched the moral decisions made by children. His investigation is such that "he developed an interview process offering a number of scenarios, each with a moral dilemma" for which he had pre-determined answers. He realized that six stages of moral development existed and that some people are unable to reach most advanced levels of ethical interpretation. He thereby concluded that; "the development of moral reasoning happens in a particular sequence, and that each step of the way is a precursor to the next" [, 2010].

Jean Piaget's theory of Cognitive Development suggests that individuals go through a series of stages on their way to independent thinking. Piaget states that "all knowledge concerning reality results from actions or operations upon it, which makes it change, revealing its stable and variational properties" (Piaget, 1980 p222).

Lev Vygotsky believed that socialization increases knowledge and often time changes a child's thoughts and behaviours. Vygotsky suggests that learning is achieved in three ways; imitative, instructed and collaborative. Imitative learning involves the student simply copying what was taught and instructed learning involves the student following directions previously given. Vygotsky's work was focussed on two important ideas. First being the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD); this describes the level of differentiation between a problem that a student can solve independently and a problem in which a student will require the assistance of others. ZPD is often identified as an individual's level of actual competency relative to their level for potential development. The second idea is known as scaffolding and describes the aspect of support given to students when it is desired.

Group work allows students to work together in small teams, combining people with varying backgrounds, experiences, technical and intellectual competencies, towards the attainment of a specific objective. Each member of the team has the responsibility of learning the material for himself, while also helping other members to clearly understand the lesson thus creating an "atmosphere of achievement" (Palmer, Peters and Streetman. 2008). Students thereby gain both knowledge and social skills. The use of group discussions helps students to explain concepts and ideas by providing immediate feedbacks. Students learn how to troubleshoot cooperatively in order to find the best solution to a problem. "When students formulate their own solutions in this manner, they are truly thinking critically (Davis, Mahler & Noddings, 1990).

Swortzel expresses that there are two major theoretical approaches to group work "Motivational and Cognitive" (Swortzel, 1997). Group work is seen as motivational because students recognize that their success or failure in the attainment of the specified goal is dependent on them being able to work together as a team. They thereby encourage each other to get the assigned tasks done properly and on time, in so doing "cooperative learning increases students' motivation to do academic work" (Johnson, Johnson & Holubec, 1986).

The cognitive approach suggests that through group work students become more critical with their thinking. Students are stimulated to think 'outside the box', thus acquiring increased levels of perception, awareness, and reasoning and judgment abilities. Group discussions are very interactive with each individual expressing their viewpoint. Within a diverse group, there will be undoubtedly varying opinions consequently highlighting approaches to the same topic.

A collaborative framework must first be established before the implementation of collaborative learning techniques. The teacher should research collaborative learning and observer other teachers who have already implement the use of group work. The teacher should grasp a good understanding of the advantages and disadvantages to group work and must develop a keen appreciation for the technique of scaffolding. The teacher then needs to decide if collaborative learning is ideal for the subject being taught, the type of students and take into account classroom restrictions, if any.

Teachers implementing collaborative learning are expected to be competent in the following areas:

Specifying instructional objectives

Determining group size and assign students to groups

Determining Group Size and Assign Students to Groups

Classroom arrangement

Planning instructional materials to promote Interdependence

Assigning group roles

Assigning tasks

Structuring positive interdependence and accountability

Explaining the criteria for success

Specifying desired behaviours

Before implementing collaborative learning the teacher should explain to the students their decision for the use of group work and explain the advantages and disadvantages. The determination of group sizes may vary depending on the nature of the task and the workload. Groups can be homogeneous or heterogeneous, grouping students with similar interests and strengths or they may be totally randomly selected. Once groups are established they usually do not change very often, so as to allow students to develop a constructive working relationship with each other.

It is important that the furniture in the classroom be organized in a way which allows the students to work as a unit, preferably facing each other, whilst allowing for their flexible movements. Teachers should take into account the existing resources needed for successful task completion and ensure that they are readily accessible by the groups. The instructions and materials a teacher chooses for a group should ensure that each member of the group makes a meaningful contribution and that individual assignments within the group will be evenly distributed.

Teachers should structure positive interdependence and accountability by regularly testing both the groups and the members of the group for understanding of the subject matter. Members should be encouraged to be able to actively defend the stance of the group and their own. The criteria for success of the group should be clearly communicated and measures put into place to evaluate the group's performance as a unit as well as the individual performances of the members.

Once the groups have been established, teachers need to monitor the behaviour of the students and assist with needs while monitoring. In so doing, teachers may assist with the answering of questions and provide and alternate point of view or opinion. Teachers may also provide feedback on the work completed or the progress made. Should conflicts arise within the groups, teachers should intervene to ensure that such conflicts are quickly resolved and explain the implications of undesirable behaviours. It is also very important that teachers provide approbation and, or motivation where it is deserved.

Students play the most important role in the art of collaborative learning. Their roles include and are not limited to, working together, actively listening to each other, keeping records of work and progress, questioning each other, assuming personal responsibility and completing the assigned task.

An article written by Dillenbourg and Schneider states that there are a few mechanisms to collaborative learning:

Conflict or Disagreement, suggesting that when peer to peer conflicts arise, social factors cause learners to ignore the disagreement and to some extent forces them to find a feasible solution to the problem. One aspect of this theory states that diverging viewpoints usually lead to academic gains, while the other states that "when conflicts are not verbalized they do not predict positive outcomes" (Dillenbourg and Schneider, 1995). This article draws two conclusions relative to this mechanism one being that "slight misunderstandings can be as efficient as a clear conflict between two agents who respectively believe P and not P" and the second being that "verbal interactions generated to solve conflict are related to learning outcomes" (Dillenbourg and Schneider, 1995).

Alternative Proposal also referred to as the "confirmation biases" by Dillenbourg and Schneider (1995). In so doing students actively develop ideas that support their suggestions and completely disregard ideas that do not. They often times cannot abandon their idea or suggestion because another suggestion may not be forthcoming; however other group members make alternate suggestions.

(Self-) explanation; the Self-Explanation effect, as it is in known in many cognitive science literature, describes that in a situation where one student is more knowledge that the other, the latter will automatically learn from the form, and also that the former will grasp a better understanding of the topic being explained as he endeavours to translate into to terms to with the latter student can actively relate. Having successfully explained the more knowledgeable student would have improved upon his skills to interrelate and gained improved confidence. Had there been any uncertainties in the explanation, someone even more knowledgeable might be able to clarify.

Internalization; the article explains this mechanism as one in which students explain or justify their suggestions to each other, the verbalization of such impacts all involved and that the concepts communicated are integrated into the listeners reasoning. "Thinking is viewed a discussion that one has with oneself and which develops on the basis of discussions we had with others" (Dillenbourg and Schneider, 1995). The article also states that for this mechanism to be effective a few conditions must be met, "One condition is that subjects can only assimilate concepts which are within their 'zone of proximal development', i.e. within the neighbourhood of the current cognitive level. Another condition is that the less able peer is not left as a passive listener, but participates into the joint problem solving strategy" (Dillenbourg and Schneider, 1995)

Appropriation, this is explained as one student observing the ideas or explanations of another and taking those ideas or explanations and building on it to make their own. Learning is two-fold as the first student reinterprets his actions relative to that of the second, and the second student got a sound foundation on which to build.

Shared Cognitive Load, this involves the distribution of tasks which will come together to achieve the overall objective of the group. When the workload is even shared between students, each student can work meticulously on the assigned task, thereby eliminating redundancies and improving the efficiency of the group.

Mutual Regulation, by employing any of or a combination of the mechanisms previously described, students often have to regulate the actions of each other to ensure that the stipulated guidelines are adhered to for the attainment of their goals.

Social Grounding, described lucidly by Dillenbourg and Schneider as "the mechanism by which an individual attempts to maintain the belief that his partner has understood what he meant, at least to an extent which is sufficient to carry out the task at hand" (Dillenbourg and Schneider, 1995). This mechanism requires the speaker to check for understanding, and where misunderstand is visible to clarify, thereby building a share understanding of the problem.

George W. Gagnon. Jr., and Michelle Collay developed another design for collaborative learning and in this model teachers develop a series of steps that their teaching structure follows as listed below:

"They develop a situation for the students to explain" (Gagnon and Collay, 2004)

"They select a process for groupings of materials and students" (Gagnon and Collay, 2004)

"They build a bridge between what students already know and what the teachers want them to learn" (Gagnon and Collay,2004)

"They anticipate questions to ask and answer without giving away an explanation" (Gagnon and Collay, 2004)

"They encourage students to exhibit a record of their thinking by sharing it with others" (Gagnon and Collay, 2004), and

"They solicit students' reflections about their learning" (Gagnon and Collay, 2004).

A comparison of there collaborative techniques, is illustrated in Appendix 1.

Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (1991) highlights three key tasks teachers should follow for the evaluation of the efficiency and effectiveness after there group work is completed. Firstly, teachers should provide a closure through summarization. That is, to summarize the lessons important points or to have each group explain their work and the points they found of most significance. Secondly is to evaluate the students learning, by assessing how they have attained or failed to attain the desired outcome and providing the feedback required, allowing students to improve on their ability to work as a group and hence personal development. Thirdly, teachers should make note of the techniques that worked and why they worked and if necessary adjust their lessons.

A popular definition of constructivism is that "Constructivism is a theory of knowledge which claims that knowledge is not passively received but actively constructed by the learner, and that the function of cognition is adaptive, serving to organise experience, rather than discover reality"(online, 2010) Group work has academic, social and physiological benefits to both students and teachers. Academic benefits include: the development of critical thinking and the active involvement of students in the learning process. The social benefits include: the development of social learning systems for students and builds diversity understanding among students and teachers. The physiological benefits include: increased self-esteem through peer-to-peer instructions and it reduces the anxiety of students.

Although collaborative learning seems to be dependent on the actions and willingness to learn, which should for many be a natural process, there are many disadvantages as there are advantages to is implementation. A few of the obstacles faced are; some students prefer to work competitively rather that collaboratively, teachers lack the ability to readily assess the work produced, teachers sometimes do not know how to measure the effectiveness of their teachings in a collaborative setting, sometimes the assigned tasks are not applicable to a students goals or abilities, and sometimes the tasks are not "difficult enough to challenge but not so difficult as to stonewall a conversation." Some groups may be comprised of 'slow learners' who may be viewed as others as invaluable, thereby promoting 'superior' behaviour by the 'fast learners'. Table 1, Appendix 2, illustrated various group structures and the advantages and disadvantages to these groups.

Nigel Hastings and Karen Chantrey-Wood from Nottingham Trent University explores the many strategies teachers utilize in group work activities, many of which are strongly endorsed by a committee known as the 'Plowden Committee'. "By spending time with groups of children, teachers could adjust their teaching to the needs of the individuals of that group to a greater extent than when working with an entire class of students as a whole. This also ensures that all children have a reasonable amount of direct contact with their teacher regardless of the fact that they are working in groups" [Hastings & Wood, 2002]. This suggests that collaborative learning enhances the occurrence of individualized attention given to students, by introducing "one-on-one" interactions between students and peers and students and teachers.

The article also illustrates that classroom arrangement is very important in ensuring that collaborative learning is efficient and effective. It shows that collaborative learning in widely accepted and very commonly practiced across the globe; "In primary classrooms throughout the UK, it is standard practice for children to sit around grouped tables - usually with four to six children in each group. Such arrangements are also common in primary schools in other English-speaking countries, Australia and USA for example. Precisely because this configuration is so normal and so well established in our schools, it is unusual to ask about its rationale or to question its appropriateness" [Hastings & Wood, 2002].

An abstract written from an experiment conducted by Gillies and Ashman, "One hundred and ninety-two Grade 6 children participated in a study which compared the effects on behavioural interactions and achievement of (a) cooperative learning in which group members were trained to collaborate to facilitate each other's learning, and (b) cooperative learning in which members were not trained but were merely told to help each other. Stratified random assignment of participants occurred so that each gender-balanced group consisted of one high-, two medium-, and one low-ability student…"(Gillies & Ashman, 1999). The observations showed that the students who worked in the 'Trained' groups where more responsive and helpful to each other, giving explanations where necessary to assist as they worked together. It showed that students in the 'untrained' groups were a lot less helpful towards or cooperative with each other. From the results it was also concluded that "the children in the 'trained' groups exercised more autonomy with their learning and obtained higher learning outcomes than 'untrained' peers" (Gillies & Ashman, 1999). This study is one of the many to attest to the success of group work.

Despite some drawbacks Collaborative learning has numerous benefits, as is explained, ranging from academic to physiological and it implementation in primary schools is quite a positive move. Students at the primary school level are quite impressionable and there is no better time for them to develop the very valuable competences that working in a group has to offer. At the primary school level they are mature enough to have an understanding of what group work requires. Many of the studies conducted were centralized around childhood developments. Students who can successfully work in groups from the primary school level are usually better equipped for when entering higher level learning institutions. They would have learnt to comfortably relate with peers and adults, such as teachers or other authority figures, they would have learnt the value of self-expression and self-explanation, actively listen and respect the views of others. These students realize that as individuals we have different backgrounds, experiences and traditions and as such may have diverging approaches to the same problem. These students will also be better able to differentiate between the need to work collaborative and the need to work competitively and in so doing will know when best to apply the respective approaches.

This research has revealed that both the teachers and the students play a pivotal role in the success of collaborative learning. Teachers are not expected to only assign tasks and sit back while the students work on their own. Teachers must play an active role throughout the process. They must plan for the assignment with clearly structured tasks that will promote collaborative interactions, promote interdependency and stimulate cognitive thinking among students. Teacher must monitor the process providing ongoing feedback and be readily able to resolve conflicts should they arise. Teachers should be able to actively scaffold their students, knowing when their support is needed and that it should gradually be withdraw.

Students in order to successfully achieve their objectives in groups must appreciate the benefits of group work. They must have a clear understanding of the desired objective and the sub-task requirement to successfully achieve the objective. They must be able to actively and reflectively listen to each other and utilize creativity and objectivity to work positively together. In so doing they will learn to foster positive work attitudes with others, thereby improving on their interpersonal skills as they prepare for the work world.

Appendix 1

Three Constructivist Design Models [1]

1. The Learning Cycle

2. The Learning Step developed by George W. Gagnon. Jr. and Michelle Collay

3. The Information Construction (ICON) model created by Robert O. McClintock and John B. Black, and is very similar to Dillenbourg and Schneider.

Appendix 2

Table 1: Forms of Cooperative Groups[2]







2 students with one problem share their ideas or questions. Each person speaks, listens, & gives feedback.

Content that requires discussion, reflection, or explanation.

Increased engagement time, Helps those who are shy

Fewer perspectives and solutions


Each member of the small group researches one part of the question /content for a certain amount of time. The members of the group come back together. Each member teaches his/her part to the rest of the group.

Content with four or five parts to research.

Students gain teaching and research skills

Some students feel pressured by a time limit

Split-class discussion

The class is split into half. Each side discusses /debates their knowledge /beliefs, etc.

Debates or discussions

Students may change their opinion or develop a different perspective

Some students may speak less with such a large group.

Random groups of 3

Class is split into groups of 3. The groups discuss the topic.

Predicting what will happen, responding to a situation.

Receive a variety of feedback, group members are accountable

Easy to leave out or team up against a shy student or one who has a different opinion

Ability/Interest/Friendship Group

Students are divided into groups based on some quality that they all have in common.

Creating plays/skits or an activity in which students must work together outside of class.

Students can work at a pace that best suits them, students are rarely bored and often motivated

It is unrealistic to find a completely homogeneous group, weaker or unpopular students may be excluded.

Diversity Groups

Students are formed into groups where they come from a wide variety of backgrounds, interests, etc.

Exploring geography, history, and diverse lifestyles.

There are many opportunities to gain different perspectives

Minorities may become alienated

Multi-aged groups

Students are divided into groups in which there are a mixture of ages

Older students teaching younger students (i.e. science experiments).

Older students- there is less pressure to compete with peers, Younger students fell important that an older person is spending time with them

Older students may be a bad influence; Older students may not know how to work with a younger child or an "at risk" student

Peer-led Conferences

Students prepare and lead a discussion of material with parents, instructors, students, etc.

A major project in which students set up stations for several intelligences.

Students get the opportunity to authentically teach, students learn self confidence.

Students whose parents are inactive in the school may be alienated from those whose parents participate; some students may not be involved in interactions.


These diagrams were obtained from:

This table was obtained from: