Is this the end of Group Work?

More and more, in my own secondary school and in all the secondary schools I visit, I see classrooms set out in rows or in individual tables. Group work is fast becoming a thing of the past and I find this is having an impact in the Drama Studio, where students are no longer used to working in groups or communicating to each other about ideas or their thoughts. The very essence of Drama is group work, which makes what takes place in our Drama Studios even more important.

It is important that we get group work and the conditions for group work right as students are coming into our lesson increasingly deskilled for working with others in a creative and problem-solving way. In Drama, especially at Key Stage 4 and 5, students often have to work alongside each other for a series of several lessons at a time, they need to be able to get along in a collaborative and in-depth way. The students need to be able to work in a safe and non-judgemental atmosphere where it is safe for them to experiment with different roles and emotions.

It takes time for this environment and atmosphere to develop and cultivate. Sadly, sometimes this kind of working environment never materialises. I’ve taught several Key Stage 3, and the odd Key Stage 4/5 group, where this has been the case. However, one needs to begin with a class assuming that this will be the case sooner or later. This is why I start the year allowing the students to choose their own working groups in Drama. At the start I think it is important to have that familiarity of friendship whilst learning and developing the unfamiliar skills of group work. It is important that students are encouraged to work with students they don’t know and work outside of their comfort zone, and I do encourage that, but at first, I ask them to do so in their own terms and if/when they want to.

Once they are used to working in groups and have begun to branch out to work with students they’ve never worked with before, including members of the opposite gender, then I begin to take control of the groups to build that atmosphere of trust and encouragement. Strategies I use for this include allowing them to select a partner but putting partners together into groups of 4 myself or a round robin approach where a pair of students that are already in groups are asked swap groups so that there is always someone you know and someone new to the group.

Pockets of trust and encouragement start to appear within the class and along with that, the quality of the work increases too. I find that students become more willing to share their work with the rest of the class as they have begun to acknowledge that there are people in the class you won’t judge them.

Eventually there will be a tipping point where the pockets of trust and encouragement becomes the dominant atmosphere of the class. At this point the students come into the class happy, ready and engaged with the process of Drama. At this point the students are also ready to be put into groups with issue or problem. Also, if there is a problem there is the atmosphere and culture within the room to solve the problem without argument or insult.

In my experience, once a class has gone through this process they are a unit, working together. They are happy to work with anyone and do so without thought or worry. They are happy for others to watch them perform and, eventually, happy for them to offer constructive criticism as well.

Not only do we have to develop that environment for group work, but I increasingly find I have to build and develop group working skills as well. For the first time ever in my career as a teacher I’ve had to actually dictate to a class that they have to talk through ideas first and give them a time limit to do it in. There are signs that students are beginning not to know how to talk to each other to work collaboratively on a project. Other strategies I’ve used to combat this, other than talking time, is giving one of the students the role of negotiator or talking in the round.

Encouraging groups of teenagers to work well in groups takes an awful long time, but even more now they no longer get that experience in other subjects across the school as well. It is as much about building and developing an environment of trust as it is about giving them the skills with which to do it. This is an incredibly important skill that is so important for the workplace and business, but one which is becoming increasingly lost in schools.

I’ve put together some questions that might help you consider how group work can be optimised to its best, and when I answered these questions for myself I found the answer to be different for different classes.

What is the most effective group size for your class?

I found that in higher ability classes, group sizes of 5 was optimum although there is room for one of the students to be carried through the process rather than be directly involved. There is no room to hide in groups of 4, which is what I’ve found to be best with lower ability groups. Groups of 4 or 5 also allow you to distribute different genders around the group without risking anyone being left alone.

What is the most effective group size for the space you have in your Drama Studio?

If you have a small space, splitting students into lots of group fills the room up pretty quickly and groups start to get frustrated with the amount of space they have to work in. I have a large space, so six groups of 5 students spreads across the room comfortably but seven groups of 4 students begins to get cramped.

How do you use groups to differentiate for ability?

Even if the students are allowed to choose their own partners in a paired activity, one of the pair is going to working at a higher level than the other in some way – even if it is one small area of the assessment criteria. I start to work on that basis and from my own knowledge I will give the higher ability student the responsibility of guiding the discussion. Once I start to group them I can then have control of pairing different pairs of students together to make groups. That choice of groups might not be based on attainment, I might base that differentiation of maturity of the student or their group work skills. Often high ability students find it very difficult to work in groups and need to take the lead from someone else who, whilst they might not have the same achievements as they do, can communicate their ideas and work in groups better.

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