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How teachers can shape group work in secondary English classes

Written By: Barbara Bleiman
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9 min read
Exploring the findings of a small-scale research project on group work – ‘It’s Good to Talk’

Research in the current climate is often focused on looking at precise, well-defined actions or initiatives, subjecting them to randomised controlled trials and then evaluating how far they can be proved to have impact. Actions are deemed to have impact if they perform well in these trials and can be proved to ‘work’ in a range of different contexts. The testing is large scale, to prove merit and there is external evaluation. The actions tested are often aspects of generic pedagogy that can be applied across subjects – such as ways of offering feedback, setting homework, providing ‘catch-up’ and so on.

There are benefits to this kind of model but it also has some limitations. The actions tested have to be stand-alone, separated out from all others, to test their efficacy in ways that aren’t contaminated by a range of extraneous factors. This might work in medical research (although even here there are voices of doubt), but in education, where human agency, expertise and knowledge all have a major effect on children’s learning, and where isolating a single action from others in a school context is extremely difficult, this kind of research both risks falsely drawing definite conclusions and, perhaps more importantly, only asks the kinds of questions or tests the kinds of actions that are amenable to isolation in this way.

Another kind of research

There is another kind of research which has, in the past few years, perhaps slipped down the agenda; it is one that does not necessarily end up with a simple ‘do this – it works!’ outcome. It doesn’t guarantee the success of one isolated classroom manoeuvre, but equally it can avoid the risks of over-simplification and can provide a more discursive approach that brings together different elements and factors in a more holistic way, reflecting the realities of classroom teaching.

Small-scale, close-focus research, working with individual teachers in classrooms can provide a different set of insights into how pupils learn. By observing, filming, reviewing, discussing and testing out shifts in practice with groups of teachers and their students, by also looking at student writing, gathering qualitative data on the experience of the teachers and their pupils, and then sharing some of these outcomes, an account of learning can be offered that is adaptable to different contexts and can inspire teachers to test out for themselves changes in their practices.

This kind of research is about teachers as reflective practitioners. It doesn’t start out aiming to prove that something particular works but rather to ask questions, follow up leads and encourage a reflective approach to learning, that is based on responsiveness to what you see happening, in other people’s classrooms and your own. This is research as genuine enquiry and the questions asked may well evolve as the enquiry develops rather than being fixed at the start.

The neglect of subject-specific research

Perhaps of equal importance in this initial discussion of educational research is the fact that subject-specific research has had much less prominence than general cross-curricular pedagogy in recent years. As a result, both research from the past and current research in English as a subject, from the UK and abroad, doesn’t seem to have been getting the attention it deserves. In the US, for instance, there is a large body of work by academics working in the language arts – Applebee, Nystrand, Langer, Gamoran and others – whose work is not very well known among teachers here.

It straddles the two different kinds of research mentioned above, with some close-focus investigation of classrooms, as well as very large trials and meta-research papers. In this body of research, the dialogic classroom in language arts (English and literacy), is proven to be highly significant in improving outcomes. Yet, it seems that their work has little traction in this country.

Perhaps that is because it falls within the subject area of English and therefore doesn’t seem to have as broad a relevance as research on generic pedagogy? However, subject-based pedagogic research seems to me to have a vital role to play. Learning in the subject, at secondary level, is what most teachers are, and should be, focused on. Subjects differ, and though there are some broad pedagogic ideas that apply, there are equally important differences and specific ways of applying generic pedagogic thinking to the particularities of the subject. So, for instance, dialogic learning might have an important role in relation to mathematics, science and history but its place in improving responses to literary texts and developing linguistic awareness will be differently inflected.

It seems to me to be important to have set this broader context for research before describing the work that I have been doing at EMC on a small, unfunded research project on group work – ‘It’s Good to Talk’.

The ‘It’s Good to Talk’ project

Our project is focused on the subject of English and is based on open-ended enquiry, in which ten themes have emerged that we are now investigating through small-scale interventions, filming and analysis of lessons, with follow-up writing and evaluations. The project is asking questions about group work that have not necessarily been the subject of scrutiny before and certainly not in relation to secondary English. The aim has been to go beyond the generalities of how to set up groups, establish ground rules for discussion and structures for encouraging talk, in order to ask hard questions about what makes group work successful or not, across a range of different key elements. Here are the ten themes that the project is addressing:

  1. What kinds of things is group work good for, and conversely, what kinds of things isn’t it good for?
  2. What’s the role of the teacher?  e.g. in the lesson set-up, in establishing key ideas and/or objectives, in intervening by pausing/re-directing, building a framework for future learning, imparting knowledge?
  3. The role of report-backs and whole-class feedback
  4. Timing and pacing of group work (including sequencing in the lesson)
  5. What if students don’t seem to be making good progress all the time? How do we know what’s being learned? Is some meandering, some difficulty and uncertainty good or bad?
  6. What kind of tasks work best in group work?
  7. What’s the right level of challenge in group work?
  8. The collaborative classroom – what insights does group work offer the teacher into how and what children are learning? What can students tell teachers about their learning, through group work?
  9. What’s the value of creative work in group work on texts?
  10. Setting versus mixed ability – what difference does this make?

What follows is a flavour of the ideas that have been emerging on just two of the themes, that will also give a sense of our modus operandi.

The teacher’s role in shaping group work

One of the most important themes to emerge has been the question of the role of the teacher in shaping group work. We have observed a tendency to talk about ‘group work lessons’, as if the teacher simply winds up the clock and then lets it tick away till the end of the lesson.

In this crude characterisation of group work, the teacher is depicted as abdicating responsibility for imparting knowledge, shaping learning or intervening in pupils’ understanding or uses of language. However, our project has been looking at the way in which group work is often just one element in a more complex lesson structure, in which the role of the teacher is crucial.

In one Year 7 lesson (filmed at EMC), we can see how a teacher pauses the group work in order to push forward the thinking. ‘What I’m hearing is “the poem is about… the poem is about…”. What other ways of comparing the poem might you talk about?’. The students then go on to talk in groups in different ways, that show them discovering the practices of the subject – discussing language, form, tone and so on.

In another filmed lesson, this one taught by me, we can see a direct correlation between my intervention to encourage students to test out each others’ ideas, probe more deeply and challenge each other, and its impact on the group work. A group of students who go on to do just that are captured on film responding directly to my comment to the whole class. There is a clear connection between teacher intervention and a shift in the way the students engage in debate around a text.

In a third set of lessons, filmed at a school in High Wycombe, we see the way in which a strong and sustained element of teacher input provides a highly effective basis for the group work that follows. Four teachers each present a short poem of their choice to their classes, demonstrating by their own presentations the kind of thinking and exploration that they hope their students will engage in themselves in their groups. They are both offering a model for how to ‘do’ the subject – how to go about exploring a poem – but also a really rich bit of knowledge about a particular poem. In their feedback, many of the students commented on how much they loved hearing about their teacher’s choice, but equally, it was possible to see the ‘footprint’ of the teachers’ methodology for discussing a poem both in the group talk and in the writing that emerged from these sessions. One aspect of poetry that pupils often find tricky is its ambiguity and the fact that interpretation comes over time. A willingness to suspend the desire for certainty is helpful. Opening up rather than closing down possibilities ultimately yields more understanding. The modelling of this process by the teachers definitely found its way into the pupils’ talk.

Going forward

In the next phase of the project, we are going to look more analytically at the kinds of interventions that teachers make during the course of small group activity. I have identified 14 different ways in which English teachers might intervene in the course of group work and have asked the project teachers to identify their ‘habitual’ practices and any that they rarely or never do. They will be testing out new forms of intervention to see where that takes them.

Interestingly, when looking at the list, the one that instantly leapt out to the teachers as unusual was the idea of intervening to offer their own view and subject it to the scrutiny of the group, for instance, ‘Here’s what I think about this aspect of the poem… What do you think? Any questions? Anyone want to dispute this?’ I’m hoping that we’ll see the outcomes of teachers testing out this kind of intervention to see where it takes them.

On another theme, the rather different one of challenge, we have begun to raise some ideas about whether teachers are setting group work tasks that are demanding enough. In the project, we have offered teachers texts to work with that are more challenging than they might normally think appropriate for their students. Part of the reason for the teachers’ choice of easier texts seems to be that they want students to ‘succeed’ and ‘success’ is often perceived as ‘doing justice’ to the text, or proving learning on a given occasion. As a result, texts that might cause difficulty are eschewed in favour of simpler ones that students can’t fail to ‘get.’

In the lessons we filmed and observed, we saw Year 7 students both choosing more challenging texts for themselves, and grappling with texts their teachers would have rejected as too difficult. They were texts that required exploratory group talk (what Neil Mercer calls ‘interthinking’) in order to make something of them. The group talk was richer because there were issues to be thrashed out. Equally, the fact that they might not have ‘got’ everything about the text wasn’t always of paramount importance.

Their discoveries about how to go about reading the texts to discover where meaning (and pleasure) lie – knowledge about the practices of the discipline – could be seen as just as significant for future learning as a thorough-going analysis of that particular text. Judging what’s significant in terms of learning is emerging as an element of understanding the value of group work. It gets to the very heart of what we think we’re doing in teaching English as a subject.

Further information

I have been blogging about the outcomes of our research, both on EMC’s blog and in a guest blog for BERA, as well as presenting the outcomes in EMC’s CPD and at conferences. For more information about the project, and for future instalments, see the project page on EMC’s website.

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