DAWN Tuesday Review, July 9-15, 1996
"Group work" is the new buzz word. Most schools in the private sector, and some even in the government, encourage teachers to get involved in this new phenomena. Many teachers claim they are making full use of it, and many students think they are active participants in this activity. The fact remains however, that as often as not, group work remains a useless activity — carried out more or less as a fad. In order to use group work effectively in a classroom, and help learners learn from each other, the teacher must first grasp the rules of the game well.
There are many traps. There can be tastes and situations in a classroom which can be faced better on an individual level rather than in a group. Or there may be a situation which may call for group work but could go wrong if the teacher fails to build up group feeling among the members of the group. David and Roger Johnson note in Cooperation and Competition (1989) that "One potential problem with cooperative effort is that the responsibility for completing the work may be diffused and members may loaf and let others do the majority of the work ... social loafing has been shown to occur especially when group members lack identifiable contributions... when there is an increased likelihood of redundant efforts ... when there is a lack of cohesive-ness among group members... and when there is lessened responsibility for the final outcome..."
Berrie Bennett and co-authors suggest in their book Cooperative Learning: Where Heart Meets Mind (1991), that these problems can be controlled if teachers and students pay attention to "positive interdependence."
Just as in life, so also in the classroom, the members of a group must depend upon each other for achieving a success that is common for all. Otherwise there will be no group work. There are nine areas where positive interdependence must be established:
1. GOAL: The group must have a common purpose; one achieves if all achieve.
2. INCENTIVE: All teammates receive the same reward if every teammate succeeds (e.g. if the whole group finishes the work they all get five marks each).
3. RESOURCE: One set of shared material per group.
4. ROLE: Each member is assigned a complementary and interconnected role (e.g. "There will be reader, checker, coach and summariser in your group of four.")
5. SEQUENCE: Overall task is divided into sub-units and usually performed in a set order.
6. SIMULATION: Teammates work through a hypothetical situation to succeed or survive (e.g. "Imagine you and your teammates are shipwrecked on a deserted island. Develop a plan that would enable all of you to survive.")
7. OUTSIDE FORCE: Groups compete against an outside force, such as other teams, time, previous record, and so on (e.g. "The first team to solve the puzzle will win a prize." Or, "As a group, try to beat your previous record.")
8. ENVIRONMENTAL: Group members are bound together by the physical environment. (e.g "You and your teammates are to stay within the small circle outlined on the floor as you work on your task.")
9. IDENTITY: Teammates establish a mutual identity through a group name, flag, motto, song, etc. "Appropriately structuring various types of positive interdependence means we consider the nature and purpose of the lesson, as well as the students' needs and social skills," writes Bennett and his co-authors.
It must also be remembered that group work changes the position of a teacher in the classroom from one of the supervisor to facilitator "...No longer is it your responsibility for insuring that they do their work exactly as you direct. No longer is it your responsibility to watch for every mistake and correct it on the report. Instead, authority is delegated to students and to groups of students. They are in charge of ensuring that the job gets done, and that classmates get the help they need. They are empowered to make mistakes, to find out what went wrong, and what might be done about it." (Elizabeth G. Cohen in Designing Group Work — 1986).
And finally, remember that children are acute observers of adults. If teachers do not work cooperatively, neither will they.