Activity 2

Ground Rules for Group Work

One of the best introductions to the linguistic benefits of collaborative group work is Neil Mercer's book, Words and Minds (Routledge 2000). In this book, his focus is on the specific value of the collaborative use of language in order to help pupils to ‘think together':

"It is an effective way of using language to think collectively, and the process of education should ensure that every child is aware of its value and able to use it effectively. However, observational research evidence suggests that very little of it naturally occurs in classrooms when children work together in groups".

Mercer is suggesting here that a precondition of successful group work is that pupils clearly understand its ground rules and learn to use them. Otherwise, many things can go wrong.

REFLECT: Think about each of the following problems which could arise when pupils work together in groups:

  • One or two pupils in each group are not contributing.
  • One group is stuck and looking quite awkward and embarrassed.
  • When you join the groups, they get self-conscious and stop talking.
  • You were hoping for an exploratory discussion of possibilities, but they seem to have reverted to banter and lists of known facts.
  • You have allowed fifteen minutes for in-depth discussion, but they ran out of steam once they had aired the obvious issues in the first three minutes.
  • They seem to enjoy talking about the subject but when it comes to feedback, nobody wants to volunteer and you end up making all the running.

WRITE: Write about ways in which you would deal with three of the difficult situations which have been identified. Then make a list of five or six ‘golden rules' for pupils to follow which would ensure that group tasks work well. When you have finished, compare your list with this list of Golden Rules for Group Work:

  • Groupings should be teacher-managed and planned to suit the task – e.g. mixed ability groups, ability groups, mixed gender, etc.
  • All group activities, even short ones, should have clear and explicit outcomes.
  • Tell the groups how long they have for the task.
  • Allocate roles to group members – e.g. group roles (chair, observer, timekeeper, spokesperson, minute-taker) or discussion roles (proposer, devils’ advocate, opposer, supporter, summariser, sceptic).
  • Stage or structure the talk around a prompt list or task guidelines or the oral equivalent of a writing frame.
  • Use one group member as an observer to give feedback on the way the group worked together and how they might improve.
  • Debrief the activity by reflecting on the kinds of group strategies that work best for the task in hand.

(Allow 35 minutes)