Taking a risk with... student group work


In the third of her articles on taking calculated risks in the classroom, Nadine Pittam discusses some risks we can take when it comes to group work


Picture a kite flying on a windy day. The kite at the end of the strings flies beautifully, dipping and lurching on the gusts. But what happens if the anchor at the other end of the strings – the person who is controlling that kite – what if they just let go of the strings? 

Rather than flying off ever more beautifully on the air, the kite crumples, is at the mercy of the wind and either plummets to the ground or becomes snagged on a tree in seconds. 

At the risk of sounding rather grandiose, teaching and learning is like flying a kite: it is at its best when the teacher is on the ground, anchoring his/her students, steering them, while the students soar in the air, discovering.

A study published in the journal, Neuron, in October last year found that there is a “basic circuit in the brain that energises people to go out and get things that are intrinsically rewarding”. 

One of the researchers behind the study explained. Apparently, this circuit, which is stimulated when we get things we want (like a car, a holiday, money) also lights up when we are curious. This means that our students get a chemical reward when their curiosity is stimulated. The study also revealed that if we can pique curiosity in our students so they want to learn, then whatever learning takes place is also going to be of a higher quality. Group work is perfect for this kind of learning.

The narrative in our classrooms is often thus: we need students to acquire some previously unknown knowledge or skill before they leave our room. Teaching is so often about making this exchange exciting. 

Increasing curiosity

There are plenty of tweaks that we can make to increase curiosity in group work. An easy way to remove the predictability from group work and make it more curious is to give one student in each group special “powers” or a special role. 

This may come in the form of extra ideas you give them which they have to introduce to their group, or perhaps you could give the most able member of the group a piece of false information and ask them to convince the rest of the group that it is correct.

Maybe you pick a student to act as ambassador for their team and wander round the room offering ideas to other groups, or maybe they could act as a thief, stealing other groups’ ideas and including them in their own group’s work.

If you have been able to generate a positive micro-climate in your room you could engage the students in feeding back on their peers’ contributions after all group tasks. This can be highly effective, especially if you do it a lot. It works best if the feedback your students give focuses on their peers’ strengths, and you offer them only a small window to be negative. 

Prompts for feedback might include: What was the most interesting thought contributed today? Can you name some things your colleagues did which made working as a team more successful? Or maybe you could just give each student in each group a different coloured pen so you can see who has contributed what.

If your group work consists of a series of small tasks, group envoys could be appointed whose role it is to collect new tasks from the teacher. This works well because it injects pace and movement to an otherwise static lesson – think about involving Twitter for the submitting of ideas or answers, like the first article in this series suggested (see further information). 

If you are able to keep some of the tasks under lock and key, where one leads to the other, it might help to stimulate that ever elusive curiosity.

Roles in group work is perhaps a non-risky approach, and certainly it is hardly a new idea (are there any new ideas in teaching?) But here are a few reminders of roles already out there:

• DeBono’s: Objective, Creative, Intuitive, Negative, Positive, Process.

• Or try: Facilitator, Time-keeper, Resource Manager, Quality Checker, Team Representative.

• Graham Tyrer has spoken about raising boys’ achievement using the following leadership roles in group work: Assessor, Chair, Questioner, Greeter, Celebrator, Literacy Co-ordinator, Learning to Learn Assessor, Target Leader, Numeracy Co-ordinator, Emotional Literacy Leader.

One-lesson ideas

Think about trying an extended fish-bowl activity – see further information for a link to an example approved by Ofsted. Sit the students in three concentric circles: an inner circle of students who will actively discuss an issue, a middle circle which surrounds the inner where students study the contributions made by those in the inner circle. The outer circle of students is for those who study the discussion as a whole.

How you differentiate here could be key to making it a great lesson. Where do you want to put your confident and most able students? That would depend on whether the discussion itself was important or whether the way the discussion took place was important, or whether the outcome of the discussion was important.

It might seem risky to get all students out from behind their desks and talking independently, but the opportunities this affords for in-depth discussion and learning are superb.

Expert groups – some may call it “marketplace” after Paul Ginnis’ Teachers’ Toolkit book – is perhaps still one of the most effective ways to approach group work, and epitomises everything that’s good about empowering through group work. 

Basically, you give different groups of students different aspects of an umbrella task to become experts in. Those students then share their new-found knowledge with the rest of the class. Check out the finer details of expert groups on the my website (see below).

Don’t ignore the enormous opportunities for meaningful differentiation presented by group work, either in terms of roles given, task set or scaffolding provided. Headteacher Tom Sherrington’s blog post from 2013 about Rainforest Thinking superbly presents a versatile metaphor about nurturing different talents for the good of all and may well spark a few ideas for you. 

Finally, we have puppets! Especially effective if you have a shy cohort, you could get your students showing off what they know using puppets. The applications for English and drama present themselves immediately, but what’s to stop history students using puppets to convey, say, the experiences of different groups of people during the time of the emergence of Parliament? Turn a desk on its side and get the students to hide behind it while their puppets speak for them.

A whole unit of work

Risk-taking doesn’t have to be short-lived and lesson-focused. Now that cameras are in everyone’s pockets, have a think about planning a whole unit around creating a stop-motion animated film. 

There would be a temptation to say that this would work especially well with creative subjects, but that would exclude the opportunities afforded to other subjects. Think about how great this would be in getting students to illustrate different stages of the water cycle (for a link to an example, see below), or photosynthesis or cloning...

Break up the topic into reasonably equal chunks and give each group a different focus: say one group focuses on rainfall, the other on evaporation and so on (my website has a detailed version for teachers of English on how you might use stop-motion for Shakespeare – link below).

Encourage students to organise the content of their collective heads in a Creative Map. The idea of a Creative Map is that students use basic stationery and the odd household object to reflect or illustrate the connections between elements within a project. 

Give students objects, these objects could be the same or different between groups; include things like paper, pens, glue, sticky tape, maybe paper cups, string, empty cans, sticky notes, and so on to share what they know about the subject.

While this is very student-led, you would do well to show them a few models of how it might look before letting them go completely. Once the maps are complete, you ask the students to talk through this graphical representation of their understanding, where they may explain that the dish represents the emptiness of someone’s mind, and that the tangled ball of string represents the changing social attitudes of the time, or whatever. Logistically, you could give different groups different tasks or give different individuals different responsibilities within the groups.


At its best, group work enables independence, and it enables discovery. It gives our students an opportunity to learn for themselves, and that requires us to ignite our students’ curiosity so that they want to learn what we need to teach, and that may mean taking risks. We must be the ones with our feet firmly on the ground, so that they can fly high in the air. 

  • Nadine Pittam is founder and director of the skills-based website of teaching ideas, www.spark-ed.co.uk

Taking a risk with...
This is the third in an on-going series of articles about taking small and calculated risks in the classroom. You can read the articles as they publish via www.sec-ed.co.uk/article-search/author/141
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