My colleague Alice attended a Voice21 Oracy session on meta-cognition and was excited to talk to me about the idea that pupils should reflect on their strengths and weaknesses in conversation in order to improve group work.
This made me in turn reflect on my own use of group work in the classroom. Group work was never a free for all in my English lessons. Tasks were clearly defined and roles were divided. Reporters, ambassadors, secretaries, chairs and inspectors knew exactly what they were supposed to do. The way the students were grouped was carefully planned, often their missions were differentiated and timing was precise. We reflected as a class on what made effective group work. But we never explicitly reflected on individual contributions and I can see now that this was a missed opportunity. We tell individuals what they need to do in order to improve their written work and indeed their oral presentations. Why not their pair and group work performance? How can we expect them to improve if there is no individual guidance? Even when preparing for the group work section of the speaking and listening section of the then English GCSE, I am struggling to remember helping the students improve their individual performance beyond going through as a class what the assessment criteria were and how to meet them. I am sure many of my colleagues were ahead of me on this, but I suspect many more were not.
And yet, I have personal experience from another sphere of how you can drastically improve the quality of talk in a group if you concentrate on it explicitly and this is from my time as coach of the England Schools Debating Team in 2007-2009. The England team consisted of four sixth formers from different schools who had not worked together before they were selected. Four of the motions that they would debate in the prelims of the World Debating Championships were announced in advance and we could take our time preparing the best approach, researching and practising. But the other four topics, and indeed those for the octo-, quarter-, and semi-final were announced one hour before the start of the debate. The team of four were shut away with no access to me or any electronic devices and had one hour to prepare. The efficacy of that hour would determine how they would do in the debate. This was high-level competitive group work! And of course we didn’t leave it to chance. I observed prep session after prep-session, often not even practising the debate, just the working together as a group. There was a timetable which had to be followed including silent times, plans to ensure that no ideas shared got lost, dispute resolution systems and more. But it wasn’t just about systems, it was about the individuals within that. The debaters took the myers-briggs test and used that as a base to discuss their own personality type and role within the group. They needed to understand their own communication and thinking style and everyone else needed to understand it too to get the best out of them. How do you make sure that an introvert’s brilliant ideas will get traction when others are shouting louder? How do you avoid clashes between two people used to being leader? How do you ensure people are generous with sharing their ideas, supportive without being controlling? We spent hours honing these sessions. By the time of the tournament, the team was a well-oiled machine and the sessions focussed, rigorous and highly-effective. If every group work session in every classroom looked like this….
Of course teachers cannot give as much time to individual coaching. But they can give some. And they can allow for individual and group reflection. The sharper and more rigorous group work becomes, the harder it is for it to be dismissed as “chat” and the higher the learning outcomes will be.