Group discussion

This activity has become quite popular in the New Generation Schools I’ve visited recently.

It’s a good thing, because it means that the teachers are willing to try new techniques, and to do more interesting lessons.

However, the implementation isn’t very effective, because they lack the training that would be necessary. In general, it’s limited to the making of a poster and last a dozen minutes. It’s always the same, like the few examples they observed during training workshops on very different topics. But organizing group work is a skill by itself.

Here are a few points of attention. If you need more, feel free to ask questions. A full review of the method would require entire books.

Relevance

The most important one is to choose group discussion when it is relevant.

It doesn’t make sense, when there is basically nothing to discuss. Just a few examples. In many cases, they use group discussion to do simple application exercises from the textbook. The expected answers are short and rather straightforward. There is one solution and only one. It’s just true or false. Discussion is relevant when several opinions can be valid or at least contribute significantly to the search of the truth.

A good way to figure out if group discussion is relevant is to ask yourself whether there can be more parts in the answer than there are participants to the group. A fill-the-gap exercise isn’t suitable, unless there are a huge number of gaps to fill.

Making all the students work

Group discussion is a mean to increase the number of active students, and possibly make all of them work effectively.

However, if poorly implemented, it might have the reverse effect, if we compare it with individual exercises for instance.

In a group, it’s possible to rely on others to do the job and avoid any effort.

It’s also difficult to engage in a conversation when the best or the most talkative students are already in control of everything. In many cases, a very smart one begins to write without really listening to his classmates. The answer is right, but they miss the point of group discussion. In other cases, a student reads the textbook and dictates the answer to the guy with the marker. No discussion either.

I strongly recommend observing the groups during the activity, to figure out how many students are really engaged in it.

The number of participants is a serious question. It’s almost impossible to discuss with more than 4 people at the same time, no matter the level of the students or their goodwill. The fifth one has little occasion to open his mouth and is at best a serious observer.  The optimal number in a group is 3 or 4, unless the task is complex enough and you can assign specific tasks: writing down the answer, finding documents, drawing illustrations and so on. If the task is complex and the number of participants relatively big, it might be necessary to choose a leader to coordinate the actions. For short activities during normal lessons, it’s difficult to do so.  

Of course, the teacher may want to reduce the number of groups, because it is difficult to share the findings, when they are too many. With 35 students in a class, it’s difficult to find a good balance. It might be 6 groups of 6, but you’re likely to let several students in each group without occupation. If you create more groups, you won’t have enough time to make all of them present their work. It doesn’t mean that you cannot assess it. You can easily do it on the fly, when you monitor the activity. Or you can assign the same task to several groups, so that one group do the presentation, and the others correct it, like you would do for individual work.

Being efficient

Setting a time limit is essential. How long should it take? Working in groups takes generally more time than working individually. However, it might be worth it, if it means better learning, for instance if the students are more involved.

What kind of group activities?

Many teachers are stuck with one style of group work. The most common one consists in answering short questions on a poster.

Here are just a few leads to increase the opportunities.   

Research and projects

Research work in the library or on the Internet. Ideally the assignment should require the students to analyze a problem, select and summarize, rather than just copying ready-made information. They should be trained to compare different sources and evaluate what is most relevant. Of course, such a task cannot be improvised. It takes time and planning.

It’s good to provide the students with a template or an example, so that they understand the objectives.

Teams and competition

It’s a good way to adapt any kind of activity in order to make it more entertaining. Besides, during a competition, you can increase the speed.

The main concern of the teacher is to make sure that the members of each team collaborate and don’t let the best one win the competition alone. It can be done through relevant rules that assign different roles in the team, or more simply by assigning enough work, so that it’s more effective to distribute tasks within the team.

The last concern is that during a competition there will be losers. It’s essential to reorganize the teams from time to time, so that no student is always on the losing side.

Peer support

By this, I mean an activity in which students are allowed or encouraged to collaborate but are not required to provide a common work at the end. Each student has his own worksheet and do all the exercises. Rather than doing together, they support each other to do their individual work.

When dealing with a new topic, it is a big asset, because the students can share their doubts and concerns. They can test their interpretation of the lesson.

However, one must consider a few dangers. Some students rely too much on others and don’t make enough efforts to do the exercises by themselves. The temptation to chit-chat is huge.

One way to fix this issue is to tell the students that this is only one stage of the process. Shortly after, they will be tested individually on similar exercises.

Those stages are sometimes described as “progressive release of responsibility” (with a first stage when the teacher models the activity).

It is good also to consider the composition of the groups. When students gather spontaneously, they work with friends who have the same tastes and abilities. Which means that the best work together, the lazy form a very disruptive group and the shy who are rejected by everybody form an awkward group. It is sometimes good that the teacher assigns some students to specific groups to balance them: “Can you help the third group instead?” There are many other ways to organize group activities. Those are only very simple examples to trigger the reflection. But I do think teachers in NGS need much more practical examples of what they can do. They also need to know about the pitfalls and requirements of such activities.

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