Study on children working effectively in groups

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This article looks at performance of Key Stage Three (KS3) children being taught new skills via the use of group work; what that evidence might be; and how the teacher assesses that performance. It examines existing research about the correct pedagogical methods of structuring group work. Observation of the classroom is made to ascertain if children are able to acquire new knowledge successfully when they participate in group activities. The study shows that pupils can learn in groups however such teaching methods are a lot harder for the teacher than traditional whole class teaching methods.

Introduction

Research (Webb 1991 & Galton 2009) has shown that working in small groups can often aid children in their learning because it allows for higher cognitive level interactions. The aim of this paper is to look at how KS3 pupils worked together in groups of three to five children using card matching activities to enhance their learning. In order to create the card matching puzzles I used a free piece of software called Formulator Tarsia. I produced two different puzzles the first being a set of dominoes and the second a triangular jigsaw; as shown in figure 1.1 and Appendix 1. Each group of pupils would be given the 12 or 16 separate pieces of the puzzle and have to arrange them in the correct configuration.

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Figure 1.1 Tarsia Jigsaw (showing close up of one corner)

When discussing effective group working the first thing we need to define is what is group work? Cohan (1994) defines group work in terms of cooperative learning as "students working together in a group small enough that everyone can participate on a collective task that has been clearly assigned ".

Theoretical Rationale

The government Department for Education and Skills (DfES) produced training material for improving KS3 teaching. These suggestions were implemented in 500 schools before being rolled out nationally. Unit ten of this publication (DfES, 2004) concerns practical strategies for the use of group work. DfES determined that the main aims of group work are to improve children's team working and communication; skills that are valued highly by employers (Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2009). Children also need to be able to communicate effectively with their peers as this will help improve both their listening skills and reasoning skills as they will have to put forward well structured arguments to support their own ideas.

The main imperfection of group work is the requirement for pupils to actually interact with each other and work, as the name suggests, as a group. Once group sizes reach three or more pupils there is the possibility for one member to remain silent and thus not participate. Cohen (1994 p. 27) also observed a tendency for some mixed-gender groups to become male dominated when provision was not explicitly made for all members. This can prove difficult for children with less developed social skills (often those from disadvantaged backgrounds). It is therefore important to have well organised groups to ensure everyone has the chance to participate. The teacher should assign pupils to a group rather than allowing pupils to group themselves, and to give clear instructions about what the task is about; what the pupils have to do and how much time they have to do it.

The findings of the Social Pedagogical Research in Group Work project (Gatton et al 2009) found that many teachers were reluctant to use group work within their classrooms. They concluded that teachers need more training on effective group work so that the techniques can be used to meet academic learning objectives not just for improving the social skills of students.

General Planning for all the Lessons

Each lesson was planned to fit into the current scheme of work that the class was following. I wanted to use the group activity as a learning tool for a topic that the pupils were struggling on. I considered teaching one class with group work and another without I did not however want pupils to miss out on a learning experience. I analysed the available literature to find out about recommended best practice. Small groups are widely accepted as being best as they maximise the chance for all members to participate (Retnowati 2010). In their review of the literature Kutnick et al (2005 p. 8) concluded that the ideal size for small groups was 4-8 participants. With this in mind I decided to organise the students into groups of four or five depending on the class size. If student numbers were low I was prepared to have groups of three.

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When constructing groups it is better to have mixed ability levels within the groups, but not too mixed. It was found (Webb 1991 p. 378) that having a full spread of ability within a group did not work well but limiting it to high/medium or medium/low ability produced good results with the amount of interaction within the group. Retnowati (2010) concluded that using worked examples rather than problem solving methods makes learning material easier to understand for students unfamiliar with the subject. I therefore decided that the first part of each of my lessons would be to explain the topic and to go through a couple of worked examples on the board. This way students can understand more thoroughly the process being taught.

Lesson - Year Seven Expanding Brackets

My year seven class consisted of twenty-two top set children. The class were just beginning to learn about Algebra and were struggling with the idea of simplifying a single bracket. Appendix 3 contains the lesson plan for Year 7/1 on 01/12/2010. In order to maximise teaching time I wanted to avoid too much movement of the students around the room. The class were seated in pairs next to a friend who had a similar mathematical ability. In order to make them into groups I decided to get the first and third rows to turn around and work with the children behind them. This gave me a total of six groups made up of two groups of boys, 2 groups of girls and two groups with mixed-gender.

After working through examples on the board I had the students get into their assigned groups. Each group was given a sixteen piece triangular Tarsia jigsaw on the topic of expanding brackets. They were given the answers for each corner of the triangle. This left the students ten pieces to put into the correct positions. Appendix 4 contains the lesson Evaluation for Year 7/1 on 01/12/2010. While the class were working on solving the puzzle I went around the room observing each group to see how they were doing. The mixed-gender groups and one of the all boy groups carried out the task without any need for me to intervene.

In the first all-girl group, one girl got so frustrated because she could not work out the solutions that she swept the entire puzzle onto the floor. I helped the group start again and demonstrated the concept of finding the next card that fitted into the pyramid to ensure she and her colleague were able to get on with the task. The second all-girl group had one member who refused to join in with the activity. When I questioned her about it she said there was no point in joining in when others could do the work better than she could.

I noticed the remaining all-boy group had found a novel way of solving the problem. Rather than actually working out the answers they had noticed that the picture I had left on the board of what the completed puzzle should look like (See Slide 4 in Appendix 3) allowed them to see the edge of some of the answers. They would then find a card that had the correct number on it and place it in position. While I did compliment them on their ingenuity at solving the problem, I told them they would have to finish off the puzzle as intended and concealed the rest of the answers so they could not be read. Appendix 9 shows an example of student work

Planning for Year Eight

My two year eight classes are following the same syllabus and were learning about fractions. For the group work lesson I decided to base it on converting decimals into fractions. I created a Tarsia puzzle with twelve dominoes. Appendix 2 show the full set of dominoes. Each domino had a fraction on one side and a decimal number on the other. The class had to match up the equivalences. The twelve dominoes could be laid out in a line or looped round to form a rectangle.

As the classes are bottom set they can easily loose focus and each of the classes have several individuals who pose their own behavioural issues for any given lesson. I teach the classes in the same room and had previously reorganised the seating plan into an alternating boy-girl pattern where possible. This had achieved a reduction in the off-task chatter in the classroom. Since I did not want anyone moving around I decided the best way to form the groups was to have the front row work together and then have the second row turn around and work with the back row.

Lesson - Year Eight (Class A) Fractions

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Appendix 5 contains a lesson plan and appendix 6 the evaluation for Year 8A/3 on 29/11/2010 for a lesson on fractions. This is the smaller year eight group with only sixteen pupils so there were four groups for the exercise. I had made the assumption that the class would know how to play dominoes. I found out that this was an error on my part. Despite a diagram on the screen (see slide 6 Appendix 5) several of the class assumed they had to match cards into pairs; some even thought they had managed to achieve this. Children in two of the groups had to be shown how to line the domino tiles up end on end before they actually understood what to do. The other two groups fared better, actually being able to complete the exercise. During the exercise I was able to observe peer-to-peer learning in one group where two girls were explaining to the two boys how to convert the decimals. The boys were then writing down what they were told and giving it a try. This was a clear observation of the pupils zone of proximal development (Vygotsky 1986). At the end of the lesson I got students to come to the board in pairs. I would write a decimal on the board and they would then have to convert it into a fraction. This allowed me an assessment opportunity see that some learning had taken place. Appendix 9 shows an example of student work.

Lesson - Year Eight (Class B) Fractions

Appendix 7 contains a lesson plan and appendix 8 an evaluation for Year 8B/3 29/11/2010 for a lesson on fractions. Some of the class were absent for this lesson so I had nineteen pupils which gave me five groups. This class contained my worst behaved pupil. I hoped group work would prove more engaging for her. Sadly she refused to join in with her group and spent most of the lesson just rocking back and forth on her chair.

Using probing questions to find out about student thinking (Webb 2010) is seen as a critical tool for evaluating the outcome of group work. To this , when one of the pupils wrote their answer on the board and in a rather uncertain voice asked me, as teacher, if the answer was correct I just shrugged and asked them to explain what they had written. With careful direction the student retraced through the steps again and having come to the same answer turned and told me they were correct. This time I agreed with them and told her that next time she needed to have more faith in her mathematical ability and she went back to her seat smiling having built her own confidence and autonomy (Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2009).

Conclusions

The results demonstrated in the previous sections shows that pupils are able to learn new skills while working in small groups. There is no evidence from this small study that students learning via group work will do so any better than under whole class teaching. Equally there is no evidence that they will do worse.

What is clear is that groups require a lot more instruction and structure than in whole class teaching. It is very easy for a group to loose focus and go off-task, for example chatting about last nights television, if they do not fully understand the work. It is a lot harder for a teacher to pick up on this (since the pupils will be seated in a group talking) compared to spotting pupils not working on an exercise from a text book or worksheet.

Teachers also face the issue of how to motivate all pupils to join in. If the exercise does not have clearly defined roles for each group member one person can dissociate themselves from the group and miss out on the learning experience.

These lessons were a challenging and productive experience for me. There are a lot of pitfalls with group work so I can understand why many teachers avoid its use. My views echo those of Galton (2009 p.136) good group work lessons are a lot harder for a teacher to manage than a more traditional approach. Therefore more emphasis is needed on training qualified teachers on good practise so they can use group work effectively. I know I have learnt a lot just from this small exercise and my group work lessons next term will be much better. For instance I know to have a lot more details instructions for pupils and a much clearing indication of what feedback they will have to give at the end.

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