Getting group work right

Written by: Tom Knott | Published:
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A culture of regular group work in your classroom can help to develop and embed crucial learning and social skills. Tom Knott explains his approach...

Every teacher struggles to pitch their lessons appropriately. Catering for all the different students with varying levels of attainment is something I am still trying to master ever since I first heard the term differentiation during my training year.

I remember being told that the secret to success lies within planning; be it preparing completely different worksheets (differentiating by task) or thinking of open-ended questions that allow for differentiation by outcome.

While there is merit to these strategies, at The Totteridge Academy I am reminded every day of the quote that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” (attributed to management expert the late Peter Drucker).

Thus I have looked for solutions outside the pedagogy of mathematics (the strategy) and have focused on the structures within my classroom that create the culture necessary to tackle the issues.

Group work is not something we do for certain activities in my maths classroom, it is what we do every day, every lesson (apart from assessments – unfortunately they will ultimately be tested individually so I do not combine student scores as a group or anything like that).

Whenever I teach from the front for the first time, I always pause for group discussions. Whenever we do guided practice to consolidate our knowledge, groups battle against one another. If we are working through questions we do it in groups.

No-one has the opportunity to go ahead of others and leave group members behind, which stretches the higher attaining students to provide high-quality explanations, and lessens the scaffolds needed to ensure you are differentiating.

For a class of 32, the classroom is set up in eight tables of four and I spend quite some time looking at data to ensure each of these tables are collectively of a similar attainment.

So I spread the “best” eight mathematicians and “worst” eight mathematicians of the class across different tables so that each table is about as mixed as can be. I then start teaching the pupils about two essential concepts:

  • The team is more important than the individuals within.
  • Explaining is harder than doing.

The first concept, although simple and logical enough, is the easiest to neglect as a teacher and many with whom I observe group work do exactly that. How often do we blame or praise an individual for the failure or success of a group task? This should never happen in a healthy group work classroom culture, or any team culture – from a professional sports club to the mission team that went to the moon.

Sport is an easy win when explaining this concept to the pupils – does Messi leave the field a winner if he has scored a hat-trick but Barcelona still lost 4-3? A true team feels responsible for not just themselves but for their group members too.

The second concept is just as important but I find this is more crucial for pupils rather than teachers to understand. I enjoy watching all the pupils put their hands up when I ask: “How many of you have ever thought ‘I know how to do this’, but then just can’t explain it?”, before continuing to tell them that the difference between a good and great mathematician is the quality of their explanation.

For good group work, the pupils must actively engage in attempting to explain concepts to others who do not understand, not only because they feel responsible but also to grab the opportunity of improving themselves by being able to explain rather than just do.

It is hard to watch pupils re-explain the hard-to-grasp sometimes, especially when I know I can intervene and explain these topics in a better and more efficient way myself, particularly at the beginning of the year with a new class which is not used to these structures.

It is harder to refuse a pupil who asks for my help because they have not sought help from the table first, and hardest of all is sanctioning an entire table for poor group work when one individual let the team down – e.g. the only pupil on the table who was able to explain refused.

However, persevere and follow the tips below and it will not take long for the pupils to adjust to your expectations and start to enjoy being part of a team.

Tips for successful group work

  • “Don’t ask me unless your whole table doesn’t know” is an excellent reply for someone asking for help.
  • Always praise or sanction the entire group.
  • Give pupils the tools they need to explain to their peers. Explain the common misconceptions so they look out for them. Teach them how to question and guide others.
  • Ban phrases in the class such as “do you understand?”.
  • When cold-calling after a discussion, target the relative lower attainers in your group, asking them to explain what their group thinks.

  • Tom Knott is assistant principal at The Totteridge Academy in London. He was a Pearson Teaching Awards Silver Winner in the Teacher of the Year category in 2018. Visit


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