The first thing many people imagine when they picture a classroom is the teacher standing at the front, chalk in hand, lecturing snoozing students on the causes of the Civil War or the applications ofpi. It’s a tradition that persists despite rapid changes in educational technology, child psychology and pedagogy, a tried-and-true strategy that is the backbone of many a teacher’s lesson plans.
There are many good reasons why direct instruction is the preferred teaching method of educators: it’s straightforward, it’s simple and it keeps authority firmly in the hands of the teacher. But there’s an increasing body of evidence demonstrating that handing collaborative control over to the students is a more effective way of teaching certain key skills.
Children learning about social issues in a collaborative group environment become better decision-makers, says a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois. Students were given a problem with no predetermined answer, with the aim of raising awareness about making responsible decisions.
After working through the various facets of the dilemma in groups, they were found to have improved in three key aspects of decision-making:
- recognition of multiple sides of the dilemma
- considering a range of reasons to support different viewpoints
- weighing the costs and benefits of different decisions
Agency and Engagement
The same study also suggested that collaborative group work turned students into more active learners, rather than the passive recipients of direct instruction. This helps develop a sense of self-awareness and independence, which students can then apply to their other studies.
Shy students – who may be afraid to participate in larger groups (e.g. when the whole class is involved) – tend to respond well to working in smaller groups, which are less intimidating and more likely to allow quieter voices to be heard.
Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, believes that American kids are getting worse at cooperation and that a simple and practical way to resolve this is through group work in schools. Working in groups, he claims, forces children to learn to get along with others and develop their “emotional intelligence” – the ability to identify and navigate feelings in themselves and others. This is an incredibly valuable skill that can be applied to every aspect of life (education, employment, relationships) and should make your classroom a much more pleasant place to be.
Negotiation and Conflict Resolution
Putting children into groups brings them into contact with new personalities and viewpoints. This kind of exposure has both academic and social benefits. Bringing diverse perspectives together means that problems can be approached from different angles, leading – ideally – to a more fully considered solution.
The flip side of different personalities colliding is that it can often lead to conflict – particularly with young children, who lack the diplomacy and tact of adults. But as long as the conflict is contained to the task at hand, this is actually a good thing: if children want to reach a solution in a group environment, they need to develop the negotiation and conflict resolution skills to get there. With subtle nudges from the teacher, collaborative conflict can become a valuable learning experience.
The Group Work Strategy
Group work isn’t the be-all and end-all of teaching strategies. Like any teaching method, it requires a great deal of thought and planning and should only be used when relevant. Dr. Ed Baines, of the Institute of Education at London University, says that group work must be used “strategically, not exclusively.” Group work should be one of many tools in a teacher’s kit, an effective complement to direct learning and individual instruction.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.