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Group Work Issues

Recently I wrote this post (2017) that highlights various ways that I can see group work being of benefit to students study in mathematics.  In the post I allude to there being many issues around group work that can have a detrimental effect on the learning of the students and I intend to explore them a little further here.

The benefits of group work can be vast, and are often tied to the discussion around the mathematics involved in a way consistent with the writings of Hodgen and Marshall (2005), Mortimer and Scott (2003), Piaget (1970), Simmons (1993), Skemp (1987) and Vygotsky (1962) amongst others. These perceived benefits give the students a chance to try things, make mistakes, bounce ideas around and then find their way through together. Seeing the links between the things they know and its application within new contexts or the links between different areas of maths.

So what are the down sides?

Good et al. (1992) warn that group work can reinforce and perpetuate misconceptions. This is an idea that is also expressed by von Duyke and Matsov (2015) who feel that the teacher should be able to step in and correct any misconceptions that the students express, although this would be difficult in a classroom where a number of groups are working simultaneously and it also goes against the feelings expressed by some researchers, such as Pearcy (2015), that students should be allowed to get stuck and not receive hints. This is a tricky one to balance. As teachers we clearly do not want misconceptions becoming embedded within the minds of our students, but we do want to allow them time to struggle and to really get to grips with the maths. I try to circulate and address misconceptions when they arise but in a manner that allows students to see why they are wrong, but not give them the correct answer.

Another potential pitfall of group work is related to student confidence. Some students worry about being wrong and as such will not speak up. This is an issue that transcends group work and that we need to be aware of in all our lessons and is discussed at length in “inside the black box” (Black and Wiliam, 1998). It is part of our jobs as teachers to create an environment where students do not fear this, and are comfortable with talking without fear of being laughed at. I try to create a culture where students know it’s better to try and be wrong than not to try at all. This classroom culture is discussed by Hattie (2002) as an “optimal classroom climate” and it is certainly a good aim for all classrooms.

The other main downside to group work is behaviour related (Good et al., 1992). Group work can be more difficult to police, and it can become difficult to check that everyone is involved if you have a large class that is split into many groups. This can give rise to the phenomenon known as “Social Loafing”, which is where some members of the group will opt out in order to have an easy ride as they feel other group members will take on their work as well (Karau and Williams, 1993). This is something that teachers need to consider and be wary of. The risk of these issues having a negative impact on learning can vary wildly from class to class and from teacher to teacher. I would advise that any teacher who is considering group work needs to seriously consider the potential for poor behaviour and social loafing to negatively impact the lesson and to think about how they ensure it doesn’t. Different things work for different people. Some people assign roles etc. to groups. Some set up a structure where students can “buy” help from the teacher or other groups. Often a competitive element is introduced. All of these can be effect or not, again depending on the class and on the teacher so it is something we need to work on individually. I’ve written before about one method I’ve had some success with here (2013).

So there are some of the worries around group work and thoughts on what needs to be considered when embarking on it. As mentioned in my previous post, I feel that group work is an inefficient way to introduce new concepts and new learning, but I do see it as something that can be very effective when building problems solving skills and looking at linking areas of mathematics together.

What are your thoughts on group work? And what are your thoughts on the issues mentioned in the article? I’d love to hear them via the comments or on social media.

Reference list / Further reading:

Black, P. and Wiliam, D. 1998. Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. London: School of Education, King’s College London.

Cavadino, S.R. 2013. Effective Group Work. 5th July. Cavmaths. [online] accessed 14th July 2017. Available: https://cavmaths.wordpress.com/2013/07/05/effective-group-work/

Cavadino, S.R. 2017. Student led learning in maths. 13th July. Cavmaths. [online] accessed 14th July 2017. Available: https://cavmaths.wordpress.com/2017/07/13/student-led-learning-in-maths/

Good, T.L., McCaslin, M. and Reys, B.J. 1993. Investigating work groups to promote problem-solving in mathematics. In: Brophy, J. ed. Advances in research on teaching: Planning and managing learning tasks and activities. United Kingdom: JAI Press.

Hattie, J. 2012. Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Abingdon: Routledge.

Hodgen, J. and Marshall, B. 2005. Assessment for learning in English and mathematics: A comparison. Curriculum Journal. 16(2), pp.153–176.

Karau, S.J. and Williams, K.D. 1993. Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 65(4), pp.681–706.

Mortimer, E. and Scott, P. 2003. Meaning making in secondary science classrooms. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Pearcy, D. 2015. Reflections on patient problem solving. Mathematics Teaching. 247, pp.39–40.

Piaget, J. 1970. Genetic epistemology. 2nd ed. New York: New York, Columbia University Press, 1970.

Simmons, M. 1993. The effective teaching of mathematics. Harlow: Longman.

Skemp, R.R. 1987. The psychology of learning mathematics. United States: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

von Duyke, K. and Matusov, E. 2015. Flowery math: A case for heterodiscoursia in mathematics problems solving in recognition of students’ authorial agency. Pedagogies: An International Journal. 11(1), pp.1–21.

Vygotsky, L.S. 1962. Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 

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  1. July 16, 2017 at 9:53 am

    Thanks Cav, a very helpful and balanced summary. I tend to use short busts of pair work more than group work. Gets over a lot of the issues of social loafing and behaviour but still provides students chance to talk maths which I believe to be an essential part of every lesson.
    Another question, and this gets right to the core of your beliefs as a teacher. Should we be providing social opportunities in our maths lessons to work together with all the challenges that brings? Should we expose our students to social loafers and help them learn how to deal with the challenges of working in teams. Or should we ensure that every minute of every lesson is optimised for maximum learning of mathematics? If my school provides enough opportunities for the former, that helps me to justify an approach that prioritises mathematical learning opportunities in my lesson.

    • July 16, 2017 at 10:01 am

      That is a good question and is very pertinent to the overarching education debate. Some argue that the sole function of schools is that of academic education. I feel that this should be the main focus, and that in some contexts it could be the sole focus. I also believe that there are many schools where the opportunities outside of school for any growth at these skills, or cultural growth for that matter, and that in this schools purposes other than academic education need to considered.

  2. July 16, 2017 at 11:24 am

    As mhorley said, this is nicely balanced. Too often education debate is black and white a la Animal Farm: group work good, didactic bad. The social skills side of group work are I feel very important. It should be part of our responsibility as a maths teacher to enable students confidently to enunciate their ideas. Sharing understanding of a topic is very useful for reinforcing knowledge or exposing weakness in comprehension. I also do a lot of paired discussion especially during or after an initial explanation and example to find any underlying issues before the class start in earnest; often during a lesson I will get a pupil who I have just helped to explain to the next questioner or possibly several. Either they all get it or I find the first child hadn’t understood, and neither do the others, so we probably need to go back to a whole class session.

    Where I have more setpiece group activities, I will generally devise the task so that several processes can or need to happen at once so loafing is harder to achieve and tends to be peer policed. I reinforce the latter by making a point during follow up discussion of asking non-leaders in groups why they made a certain choice or how they found such a value. If they don’t understand what their group did I will criticise them for not engaging but also the group leaders for not taking them with them; this becomes more interesting when the group ends up with the wrong answers!

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