How groups work is essential when supporting learning


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To understand how group work is essential in supporting learning reference has to be made as to where group work within education has come from and is today. Throughout history scholars have acknowledged the value of group learning. Asimov & Bosworth (1999) inclines that as far back as 980 AD when Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in the West), wrote about "The Role of the Teacher in the Training and Upbringing of Children", as a guide to teachers working within schools. He wrote that children have a higher level of learning if they are taught in groups instead of individual tutoring by private tutors, and he also gave a number of reasons why this was the case, stating the value of competition and imitation among pupils as well as the usefulness of group debates and discussions. Moving through time it is stated that Piaget (1926) believed that knowledge -- language, morality, rules and values can only be learned through individual interactions with others. Peer interaction with others is also tantamount in logical thought in achieving a balance within the child's individual ideas and the provision of feedback to the child about the validity of their ideas. Many studies Bell, Grossen & Perret-Clermont (1985), Murray (1982), Perret-Clermont (1980) have shown that when learners of a similar age group work collaboratively on tasks tend to develop and maintain stronger learning concepts. In fact, a few studies Ames & Murray (1982), Mugny & Doise (1978) have found that pairs of disagreeing learners who had to come to an agreement gained in the building blocks of their learning experience. The importance of children operating in each others areas of development was demonstrated by Kuhn (1972), who found that there was a small difference in the cognitive levels between a child and the expectation of society was more of a contribution to cognitive growth than a larger difference. On the basis of these and other findings, many Piagetians Damon (1984), Murray (1982), Wadsworth (1984) called for an increased use of cooperative activities within schools. They argued that interaction (debate and discussion) among pupils within a learning task would lead to an improvement of pupil academic achievement. Therefore pupils would learn from each another because during their discussions of the subject at hand, cognitive conflicts would arise, inadequate reasoning would be exposed and a higher-level of understanding would emerge.

One widely researched are within cognitive theories is the developmental perspective Damon (1984), Murray (1982). The main assumption within the developmental perspective on cooperative learning is that interaction among children when carrying out group tasks has shown an increase in their mental capacity of critical concepts. Vygotsky (1978) defines the zone of proximal development as "... the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers." In Vygotskys' view, collaborative activities among children encourages growth because children of similar ages are more likely to be operating within one another's zones of development, modelling in the collaborative group behaviours therefore more advanced than those they would be able to perform as individuals. Vygotsky (1978) has stated that the influence of collaborative activity on learning is that functions are first formed in the collective in the form of relations among children, and then become mental functions for the individual, and his research shows that reflection is spawned from open discussion within the group. Similarly, further research Davis (2009) implies that, regardless of the subject matter, pupils working in small educational groups tend to learn more of what is being taught and therefore able retain it longer than when the same content is presented to the group in other formats. Beckman (1990), Collier (1980), Slavin (1980), Slavin (1983) inform us that similarly, pupils who work within collaborative and cooperative groups also appear to be more satisfied with their lessons and subject material. Various other names have been given to this form of teaching, and among those appear collective learning, peer teaching, learning communities, peer learning, team learning, reciprocal learning, study circles, work groups and study groups.

Further educational research has shown that using group work in the classroom is of benefit to pupils both academically and socially Cohen (1994), Johnson & Johnson (1994), Kagan (1995), King (1997), Lou, Abrami & Spence (2000). However, it seems that many teachers within the modern educational establishment are still unclear about how to effectively organise pupils into groups for the purposes of learning within the classroom Webb & Palinscar (1996). One of the many dilemmas that teachers often face is whether to organise pupils into groups with friends (friendship group) or non-friends (acquaintance group). Research into how pupils engage with friends and non-friends in group learning environments is said to be relatively scarce Zajac & Hartup (1997). One of the main reasons is that pupils see themselves differently in the extent of how they perceive themselves within the group and therefore to be independent from, or interdependent with fellow pupils. It could therefore be said that the in-group (friendship group) will be more important for pupils with interdependent views of themselves than pupils with independent views of themselves. It has been suggested that there are clear differences in how the individual is seen Brewer & Gardner (1996), Singelis, (1994), Triandis (1995). One of the key distinctions noted by Markus and Kitayama (1991) is the notion of independent and interdependent pupils. Pupils who are independent see themselves to be unique and therefore stand out from others and tend to prioritise individual interests over concerns of the group Markus & Kitayama (1991). Alternatively, pupils who are interdependent see themselves to be involved and inherently part of an in-group. Their sense of being is likely to be shaped by the views of that in-group, and they are likely to give the priority to the interests of the in-group over other concerns Markus & Kitayama (1991). Current thinking Gudykunst, Matsumoto, Ting-Toomey, Nishida, Kim & Heyman (1996) suggests that all people regardless of background possess both independent and interdependent traits, and depending on the context, either can be brought to the front and used within the group. Research Oetzel (2001) investigating group dynamics has identified links between interdependent traits and cooperation within groups. This could be explained Carpenter & Radhakrishnan (2002), Radhakrishnan, Kuhn & Gelfand (2000) by the fact that people with interdependent views of themselves tend to place considerable importance on serving and meeting the needs of the group. It could be suggested that in contexts involving working in educational groups with friends, pupils with interdependent traits will place considerable emphasis on being cooperative rather than collaborative.

In contrast co-operative work (2009) is the more highly structured and teacher led of the two. At its extreme, the teacher selects group members and dictates roles within that group with little or no consideration to individual group members personality profiles Briggs-Myers & Myers (1995). Tasks and goals would then be set by the teacher, and continuous monitoring of the groups activities by circulating among the groups, clarifying and explaining, putting groups which have strayed back on track, giving encouragement as and where needed. Each group member works on a task and brings it back to the group. Each pupil is held accountable for his/her own contribution to the group's work. Such as the outcome is a collection of work done by individuals. In contrast, collaborative work, shifts more responsibility from teacher to the group as a while. Tasks and roles are allocated by the pupils within the group themselves, who then work on collective problem solving and are therefore jointly responsible for processes used to achieve the final outcome. In contrast to this collaborative methods are based on the concept that pupils are responsible group members who will use their already adept social skills to perform group tasks capably. The teachers approach will therefore be a more 'hands off' role allowing problems to be referred back to the pupils within the group to solve as a group. A large proportion of educational small group work is a mixture of the two approaches. The collaborative, 'hands off' methods of managing groups are suitable for longer term tasks like projects and casework, whereas the co-operative, 'hands on' version are more appropriate for group one-off exercises and discussions. Considering the overwhelming number of benefits created by the use of Group learning methods (2006), it is a highly unutilised skill in many classrooms.

The cause lies in the current educational system which emphasizes content memorization and individual pupil performance through competition. Few teachers or pupils have had any exposure to the Group Learning teaching/learning technique. If teachers are taught by the lecture method while being taught to be teachers, then perhaps it is not surprising that this is often seen to be the method of choice within the classroom. And the fact that most pupils have been exposed only to the competitive, individualistic approach used in many of the schools of today across at all levels, has created a major lack of understanding a misuse of the group learning techniques. Pupils are therefore unlikely to change their attitudes from one class to another unless they are trained in group learning techniques.

Group learning techniques within a group are can be determined as Johnson, Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Holubec, E. J. (1993) inter-dependence, face-to-face interaction, creating group and individual accountability, group processing, small group and interpersonal skills. Structuring these basic components into group learning scenario helps ensure cooperation between pupils. Constructive inter-dependence is successful when pupils within that group understand that they are all linked with each other in a set way that they are all unable to succeed unless everyone within the group succeeds. Group tasks and goals, therefore, must be set out and communicated to the pupils in a format that make them believe that they will sink or swim together. According to Harmer (1997) the teacher can act as controller, assessor, organizer, prompter, participant, resource, tutor, and/or investigator in the group work. Pupils need to work together, to ensure they have an opportunity to encourage their successes by sharing resources, encouraging, supporting, and applauding each group member's efforts. The group must be held accountable for gaining its goals and each group member must be accountable for contributing their share of the work. Group learning is naturally more complex than competitive or individualistic learning because pupils have to engage simultaneously in teamwork (functioning effectively as a group) and task work (learning the subject matter). The social skills involved for effective cooperative work do not naturally appear when group lessons are used. Instead, social skills must be nurtured within the pupils just as purposefully and precisely as any academic skills. It can be seen that group work is best seen as a pupil-centred activity, the teacher, though not an integral member of the group still has an important role to play within the group dynamic. The teacher's competence at enabling the group work can greatly affect how pupils perform within the group and there is a constant need for teacher's to give concise and clear instructions that will encourage appropriate language and group skills used by the pupils. At the same time, the teacher's non interference in the group will itself generate a higher level of interaction within the group. According to Harmer (1997) the teacher can act as controller, assessor, organizer, prompter, participant, resource, tutor, and/or investigator to help promote the group work. Brown (1991) lists some guidelines for teachers role within group work, as instinctive as they seem , they are often overlooked; do not leave the room, do not spend an undue amount of time with one group at the expense of others, do not correct pupils' errors unless asked to do so, and do not assume a dominating or disruptive role while monitoring groups. Additionally, Bligh, Ebrahim, Jacques & Warrenpiper (1975) suggested the following actions; don't correct or reject the initial contributions from the pupils even if they are wildly wrong; don't state an opinion rigidly as this may cause pupils to shy away from the task at hand; and don't answer questions that could be answered by other members of the class. Once the group work has started it is advisable for the teacher to keep their distance for a while, thus ensuring that the pupils feel free to speak their mind, discuss, and debate freely within the group without hindrance. However, it may be a good idea for the teacher to circulate to see how things are going with each group, give suggestions and appropriate encouragement where needed. No matter what the teacher does, there will be some pupils who fail to participate in group work efficiently. Pupils can be shy or poor academically within the group.

Teachers of today are always searching for better ideas and techniques to meet the educational challenges faced in schools of today. The Group learning methodology provides teachers with an effective way to respond to the diverse needs of today's pupil. Group learning is an essential educational discipline for helping students of many academic levels and backgrounds to explore the curriculum and to build their self confidence whilst developing their communication skills needed for succeeding in a modern world. History has shown that group learning is both useful and fundamental in the education of both young and old learners. Because group work has a substantial impact on today's teacher's role, skills development is more than ever very vital to the implementation of group learning. To learn and employ group teaching strategies, it is imperative that teachers have the opportunity to expand their professional development, including, ongoing coaching, mentoring and peer support at the classroom level, as when implementing group learning strategies, group teaching skills are greatly enhanced if teachers' are given the opportunity to work together and learn from one other. When teachers are given the opportunity to observe and coach with their peers, it has shown to be essential in supporting the process of ensuring that the teachers continue to acquire the methodology and develop new ideas and strategies that are tailored to their own situations. Although group learning is a practice that is widely endorsed as a pedagogical practice that encourages learning and socialisation among pupils, it appears that teachers predominately still struggle as to how to introduce it effectively into their classrooms. Teachers of today must use strategies that challenge pupil thinking and scaffold their learning. Group learning can enhance pupil outcomes when teachers promote pupil learning and engagement on all levels and for today's pupils with diverse abilities and needs. Group learning methods hold the key to accelerating pupils' attainment of higher academic levels and the development of their knowledge and skills necessary to allow them to thrive in the future. However, like other great educational innovations, group learning practice must be tailored to the environment in which they are used. Planned and put into use by teachers who are adhere to the critical elements of group learning and in doing so remain dedicated to regarding diversity as a resource, group approaches are the key attribute and essential for supporting learning in any classroom of today's modern school.

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