This final subtopic of ‘Literacy and learning spaces’ considers the way in which learners can be grouped to maximise the development of collaborative work and the skills of oracy. The link between learners engaging in productive social interaction as a pre-cursor to developing effective literacy skills is well proven. However, learners often end up just sitting together rather than being taught the skills needed to participate in high-quality talk.
In this subtopic you will consider the following aspects of 'Learners in groups':
- how learners can be grouped
- the types of activities that support good group work.
To explore different ways of seating and grouping you may find it helpful to use the interactive classroom design tool (external link) developed for this module. You can use it to support different ways of organising the learning environment.
Before exploring different ways of grouping learners, it can be useful to reflect on your current practice.
Take a moment to consider the following questions and reflect on your current ideas and beliefs about how learners might be grouped.
- Do you have seating plans in place?
- How are these determined?
- Do they change for different lessons or types of learning?
- What is your motivation for changing seating?
The answers to these questions will help you identify the philosophy underpinning the ways in which learners are grouped in your environment and highlight any strengths or areas for development.
Why change seating plans or groupings?
It can sometimes be the case that in the complexities of learning and teaching, the seating plans and grouping may not always be changed for a pedagogical reason. The following activity prompts you to think about times when you may have changed seating in your learning environment.
Either open this accompanying documentation or launch the activity below, and think about the reasons you have changed seating plans and groupings.
- What was your main motivation to change seating or grouping?
- How did the changes relate to creating a better learning environment?
- How might the changes have promoted the development of collaborative working?
Relationships in the learning environment are both complex and dynamic. What presents as a social upset one day will be resolved the next. Therefore, it is important that your over-arching aim for grouping and seating is to support effective learning and there is not an over-emphasis on behaviour management.
How learners might be grouped
In relation to your personal practice, you may like to consider some of the different ways learners can be grouped. The following activity gives one example of the different ways learners might be grouped for pedagogical reasons and to promote collaborative learning.
In this activity you can consider different ways in which learners might be grouped.
The objective is to obtain a threefold match by correctly selecting:
- the type of group
- the definition
- an appropriate activity to support this way of grouping.
The activity can be found below, along with this example of a completed response.
The challenge for teachers is to explicitly teach the skills needed for participation and to organise group work in such a way in that the most effective talk will be achieved. In the article Improving collaborative group work (external link), four top-tips are suggested for organising group work.
Teachers who successfully implement these changes can be described as moving towards an active and participatory learning environment where the role of the learner is transformed. The impact of this collaborative approach will not just be on literacy but on the holistic development of the learner.
This activity shows the potential transformations that can take place when a collaborative group approach is adopted.
This activity shows the shift in roles for the teacher and the learner when group learning and collaboration become a part of the learning environment.
The Northern Ireland Curriculum document detailing classroom-based suggestions for creating an active learning-based classroom (external link) is highly recommended reading.
Activities to support good group work
The ways in which learners are grouped is one part of the collaborative approach but it is equally important to consider the content and purpose of the task.
Grigg (2010) suggests that:
Tasks that include an element of controversy, such as debates over moral issues, are likely to lead to productive interactions. This is especially so when the tasks extend understanding and cannot be completed by individuals working independently. (p.316)
Grigg, R. (2010) Becoming an Outstanding Primary School Teacher, Essex: Pearson
So, activities based on dilemmas, problem-solving, designing, evaluating and decision-making lend themselves to high-quality social interactions and collaborative learning. When planning for a collaborative activity, perhaps the most important decision to make is:
- How will the process of learning be as valued as the final product or outcome?
If you make this question your priority then gradually you will achieve a shift in roles towards the active learning environment where teacher and learner talk is transformed.
For more practical ideas on collaborative learning, you may also like to view the Key Stage 2 group work - collaborative activites (external link) film clip from the Teachers Media (external link) website. In addition to this, some very worthwhile ideas and teacher support materials can be found at the University of Cambridge's Faculty of Education Resource page (external link).
In this subtopic you have considered the profound effect of grouping learners, together with the pedagogy of collaborative learning. The development of high-quality group learning and its resultant impact on classroom talk is inextricably linked to securing more sophisticated skills of oracy. This should be one of the goals of all educators.
There are still more critical reflections to be found on grouping learners, the article Group Seating in Primary Schools: An Indefensible Strategy (external link) being one to highlight some controversial viewpoints.