Group work, collaborative groups, peer groups, buddy work, whatever you want to call it, it involves kids theoretically working together. In elementary schools, group work is quite common. Having taught 2-4th grades for 10+ years, we can tell you, group work happens. For some reason, as kids advance in school, group work changes, or disappears entirely. It’s a shame.Many teachers in junior high and high school say that group work doesn’t work with their subject. I am not sure how they came to that conclusion, but somehow, they have. They have managed to convince themselves that kids should only work by themselves. They cite reasons such as, “Kids will just cheat off the smart kids in each group” and “No one actually gets anything done when working in groups.” Unfortunately, more often than not, the problem is not the students. Most of the time, the problem lies in the assignment being given.
When creating assignments for group work, the teacher must create assignments that will engage students. You have to have challenging assignments that will draw them in. All of them. It is not enough to simply give a worksheet and let the group work on it together. If that is what your idea of group work is, I would challenge you to evaluate your thinking. That is the sort of assignment that will end up with the very things the teacher uses as excuses to not assign group work.
You see, I think group work is very much different from working in groups. To me, group work means it is a task, or series of tasks, set forth to force students to HAVE to work together to solve/complete. It is a task that requires a variety of ways of thinking, and offers the opportunity for all types of learners to learn. Remember, students are supposed to struggle. Make them struggle through their work. If they are actively struggle with a problem, they are engaged and learning. They are contributing.
Working in groups, on the other hand, is far different. This is what most teachers actually do. This simply means that students are grouped, or allowed to group themselves, to complete a very basic task together. Usually, this is completing a worksheet, study guide, or some other DOK 1 task. This is completely non-productive. In fact, I would say it is counter-productive. Doing this actually harms some students. It teaches them that they really can lounge back, contribute nothing, and get a decent grade. Translate that into the future, you have a horribly under-prepared adult who expects others to do his work for him, and still reap the benefits (paycheck).
As to the argument of not all subjects being appropriate for group work I would call shenanigans. I think this is typically a cop out for teachers who either don’t want to deal with creating the meaningful work, or don’t know how to create the work and have no desire to learn how. I have a hard time coming up with subjects in junior high/high school that would have no meaningful group work opportunities.
Remember, no matter how we group students, we must make the task rigorous and meaningful to get students to be engaged. Busy work done in groups is still just busy work, and the kids know it. So, spend some time this summer revamping some lessons. Find great ways to incorporate group work. Don’t be afraid of a little constructive noise.