"Everything works somewhere; nothing works everywhere!"
When I was completing my Certificate in Evidence-Informed Practice Programme through Chartered College of Teaching one of the topics that was available to research in more depth was 'Does group work ever work?'. Even though it wasn't the topic I have chosen to research it has made me think about it in the context of my own domain. So, here are my own reflections on it.
The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF, 2018) define collaborative learning as approach that “involves pupils working together on activities or learning tasks in a group small enough for everyone to participate on a collective task”.
In the research it has been argued that working collaboratively can be either beneficial or of little worth (Slavin, 2010) and its benefits are not always consistent (Kirschner et al., 2018). For many teachers, whole class teaching and independent or pair work are still more preferred learning contexts in the classroom and group work is fairly infrequent (Baines et al., 2015). To the contrary, some research indicates that collaborative learning enables students to become more engaged in the learning process and William (2018) refers to research which shows that effective collaboration can double the speed of learning.
So, what is the role of group work in L2 classroom. In most language classrooms today, the oral proficiency and communicative ability are the main goals of language learning. If we consider that most L2 learners do not have frequent opportunities to engage in L2 conversations outside of the classroom group or pair activities can be a useful tool for maximizing authentic and meaningful interactions amongst our students.
With the emphasis on second language acquisition being communicative competence (students being able to use L2 effectively within specific contexts) various strategies in language learning need to be applied, as well as linguistic, social and interpersonal skills. Interpersonal communication is considered more effective in increasing one's communicative ability than merely focussing on learning the rules of grammar (Krashen & Terrel, 1983).
In my own classroom, the success and impact of group work on students' learning has been varied, especially in classes with mixed range of abilities at KS3. I have observed scenarios where during the group work, some of my students take a back seat whilst other more confident or able students took the lead at times resulting in treating the quiet, less confident learners unkindly - an occurrence which Campbell and Bokhove refer to as 'tall poppies' syndrome (2019) .
Often, I have wondered whether the group work activity has made a beneficial impact on all of my learners or whether they would have learnt and gained more having completed the task individually. If we take into consideration the cognitive load theory, especially if the complexity of the activity increases, the hive mind of the group can work together to solve the task i.e more complex translation. However, the context of the class needs to be taken into account - students having belief in their ability that they can complete/solve the task, learners working as a group not just in a group and that making the group effort will pay off.
The recent online learning enabled me to observe group work more easily. When using break out rooms (students were working on a translation task), I have noticed some learners do divide up the tasks between themselves quickly and complete the work quickly but essentially work independently, whereas some learners who I know are friends simply ignored each other and did not collaborate at all.
Combatting the learners who dominate or sit back can be a challenge in any classroom, especially during group work. Learners need a reason to work together, not just simply being told to work together (Slavin, 2010). Structured team learning with the team's success depending on individual learning and accountability combined with a system of rewards is what he suggests. The teacher needs to understand their groups and know which rewards will motivate them, this will differ based on the age and maturity of the learners.
In my own context, the most success I have had using collaborative learning, has been during my GCSE oral lessons - during group talk.
To get to the stage where every student in the class feels confident enough to contribute equally, firstly students have to be prepared for the task. It takes considerable amount of time to drill core structures and model how to manipulate these language structures. The use of guided practice, modelled examples and scaffolded tasks - such as picture task scaffolds (examples available on my resource page) is vital to ensure students have the knowledge to conduct the work successfully and spontaneously. They need to practise a lot!
Creating a classroom environment where students feel safe and supported is essential. Students will make mistakes and that is OK during the practice. I also try to avoid over correction at this stage, but pay close attention to the common mistakes that become apparent whilst I am circulating the classroom, listening and supporting where I need to.
These common mistakes are consequently addressed on whole class basis to avoid learners embedding the application of language incorrectly.
Less confident students are allowed to have a support sheet with them which is gradually removed as students become more confident and fluent in their responses. The key focus is on everybody speaking and taking part, working as a group. All group members supporting each other and helping a member of the group when they get 'stuck'.
I have observed a great deal of maturity amongst my GCSE students and believe that collaborative work has enabled them to learn from each other and improved their linguistic competence and self-efficacy.
Examples of scaffolds for group talk - GCSE:
*Shared by another colleague, not my own resource
inspired by Gianfranco Conti - adapted to German
The recent webinar by Greg Horton for Linguascope on group talk at KS3 level - a successful project he run a few years ago, has made me think about how I could make it work better for my younger learners. As he mentioned sometimes it doesn't work but when it works, it is extremely motivating and rewarding for both the teacher and the students.
Example of group talk resource by Greg Horton
Whether our focus is on the design of the curriculum or the delivery of a lesson, it seems obvious that there is a place for group work within M(F)L curriculum, however, it is down to us - teachers to ensure that the tasks given to groups are extensively processed and that we take time to get to know the groups of our learners and their dynamic first. Considered choices about the groups of learners we select to work collaboratively and our understanding of their composition will aid completion of the task.
Constructive critique and new ideas are always welcome.