Improving group work in the classroom

Schools can successfully implement the SPRinG programme, a new approach to effective group work. Peter Blatchford and Ed Baines explain

Governments across the world want to raise educational standards. There is growing appreciation, however, that the current combination of curriculum and assessment pressures in many countries can result in an over-emphasis on traditional forms of teaching and excessively passive classes, and that more should be done to develop the “soft” life skills that enable learners to work as a team and make decisions together. The SPRinG (Social Pedagogic Research into Group work) research shows that group work can help to address these concerns.

What we know
● The SPRinG project was designed to address the gap between the potential of group work and its limited use in schools.
● The SPRinG approach can be successfully integrated into school life, recognising the concerns and difficulties that teachers can have with group work
● SPRinG activities for children aged 7-11 were targeted at science and led to significantly higher attainment and deeper conceptual understanding and inferential thinking.

What have previous studies told us?

Earlier research indicated the potential of group work to improve learning and behaviour. Unfortunately, our own earlier descriptive research showed that this potential was often not being realised in UK schools. Pupils often sit in groups, but only occasionally work as groups. Children are rarely trained for group work and teachers can lack effective strategies for setting up and managing such work. And we found that teachers can be sceptical about the value of groups and tend to rely on whole-class teaching and individual work.

What was SPRinG’s aim?

The main goal of the SPRinG project was to address this wide gap between the potential of group work and its limited use in schools. The five-year project had two aims: to work with teachers to develop strategies that would enhance the quality of group and paired work; and to evaluate whether these strategies would result in an improvement in pupils’ attainment and learning, and in their behaviour.

SPRinG was part of the UK Teaching and Learning Research Programme and was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The project evaluation involved 162 classes in primary and secondary schools and 4,259 pupils aged 5 to 14. The research on

  • KS1 (5–7 years) took place at the University of Brighton (Director Professor Peter Kutnick);
  • KS2 (7–11) at the Institute of Education in London (Director Professor Peter Blatchford); and
  • KS3 (11–14), at the University of Cambridge (Director Professor Maurice Galton).

This paper concentrates on results and experiences at KS2, but the SPRinG research suggests that group work benefits children of all ages.

What makes SPRinG distinctive?

The SPRinG approach applies to group work across the curriculum and over the school year. We worked with teachers to develop a programme that could be successfully integrated into school life, and that recognised the concerns and difficulties they can have with group work.

The SPRinG programme has three key principles
● It stresses the importance of supportive relationships. Group-work skills have to be developed; we cannot just put children into groups and expect them to work well together. Activities are designed to help pupils communicate effectively through listening, explaining and sharing ideas, but also to help them trust and respect each other, and plan, organise, and evaluate their group work.
● It provides guidance on how teachers can adapt grouping practices for different purposes and learning tasks, and how they can support groups. The key aim is to encourage pupil independence rather than to teach pupils directly.
● It rests on the belief that for group work to be successful the classroom and groups need to be organised and managed. Attention needs to be paid to classroom-seating arrangements, and to characteristics of groups such as their size, composition, and stability over time.

These key principles, along with activities for developing pupils’ group-work skills, were set out in a handbook for teachers (see Further reading).

What did we find in the evaluation?

A strength of the programme is that it is based on a unique systematic evaluation of pupil progress over a full school year, and on comparison with a control group in terms of objective measures of attainment and classroom behaviour.

Key finding 1: Far from impeding learning, SPRinG raised levels of achievement. For the purposes of evaluation, SPRinG activities for KS2 pupils were targeted at science and led to significantly higher attainment and deeper conceptual understanding and inferential thinking. This difference is equivalent to an average pupil moving up into the top third of the class.

Key finding 2: Despite some teachers’ worries that group work might be disruptive, pupil behaviour actually improved in the SPRinG classes.

Key finding 3: SPRinG doubled pupils’ levels of sustained, active engagement in learning and more than doubled the amount of high-level, thoughtful discussion between children.

Other findings

  • Teachers’ professional skills and confidence were enhanced and their teaching repertoire extended.
  • Group work is most effective when adopted by the whole school, rather than the individual teacher.
  • Teachers working in areas of deprivation or difficult circumstances found that group work could be used successfully and aid classroom relationships and integration.
  • At KS1, group work helped to improve attainment in reading and mathematics and at KS3 it benefited high-level conceptual understanding.Video observations

Observations of children working in classrooms: Results

One of the main forms of evaluating the success of the SPRinG programme involved us observing a sample of children in class while they worked on everyday activities. We also analysed videos of small groups working on tasks.

In-class observations

More than 200 SPRinG children were observed on at least two or three occasions over the year. We also observed more than 170 children that were part of the control group.

We found that children in the SPRinG programme were more likely to be engaged in group work, and that control children were more likely to work alone. Levels of wholeclass work were similar.

SPRinG children were more likely to be on task when working with others, and more likely to be actively talking about and contributing to the task. Their conversations were more likely to be sustained and to involve high-level talk with explanations, shared reasoning, and thoughtful discussion.

Video observations

We found similar results in the video observations of groups. Over the course of a summer term we filmed pairs and groups of SPRinG and control pupils working on a SPRinG task. Children had to decide which of four candidates should get a pay rise or should be made the class representative. The results showed us a key difference between SPRinG groups and control groups. During the interactions, all SPRinG children were more likely to be involved in the activity and to engage in sustained talk, often of a high level involving shared inferential thinking. Children in control groups tended to leave the task to one or two of the group; the task was completed but only some group members participated and benefited.

Conclusion

Given time to develop pupils’ group-working skills, teachers can transform the teaching and learning environment. Group work offers learning possibilities for pupils not provided by either teacher-led or individual work, and can help to improve attitudes to work and classroom behaviour. We hope this project will inspire more teachers and schools to engage in more systematic use of group work – it deserves to be given a much more central role in educational policy and school practice.

About the authors

Peter Blatchford is Professor in Psychology and Education at the UCL Institute of Education, London, and is the author of more than 10 books and 70 peer-reviewed journal papers. He has directed large-scale research projects on support staff in schools, class size differences, the effectiveness of pupil groups in classrooms and peer relations at breaktime/recess.

Ed Baines is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Education at the UCL Institute of Education, London. He has an extended record of research in education and psychology, and interests in teaching and learning and peer interaction, in and outside of the classroom.

Further reading

Further information about SPRinG is available from: www.spring-project.org.uk

Baines E, Blatchford P, and Kutnick P, with Chowne A, Ota C, and Berdondini L (2009), Promoting Effective Group Work in the Primary Classroom: A Handbook for Teachers and Practitioners. London: Routledge.

Kutnick P, and Blatchford P (2013), Effective Group Work in Primary School Classrooms: The SPRinG Approach. Dordrecht: Springer.

Blatchford P, Baines E, Rubie-Davies C, Bassett P, and Chowne A (2006), The Effect of a New Approach to Group-work on Pupil-pupil and Teacher-pupil Interaction. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 750–65.

Published

December 2015