Group Work Is Immoral

Trainee teachers are told time and time again to use group work. Often, the pressure is not formally applied. The Teachers’ Standards, for instance, do not explicitly advocate group work over direct instruction.[1] Nevertheless, in meetings with academic and professional mentors, or with training providers, the pressure is somehow there.

‘Look how hard you were working,’ said with a simpering smile and an unspoken offer of a pat on the wrist. ‘How do you think you could have made that easier for yourself?’

Teaching is difficult. There are no quick fixes. Anybody offering you these panaceas more truly belongs in an infomercial for a JML Toilet Knight than in an ITT setting. What is the solution? Learn your craft, don’t be lazy, and for God’s sake, don’t even try to use group work to conceal your lack of subject knowledge.

‘How could you ensure that everybody is doing something, all at the same time?’ Let me rephrase this stock ITT question: ‘How could you ensure that everybody looks busy so that you can impress the person observing you?’

If I am questioning my pupils very intensely, and analysing their body language as I do so, I will know who is active and who is passive. I will deliberately choose the pupils looking away from me to answer my questions. Furthermore, the prevailing silence (aside from one person speaking at a time) will allow me to gauge any off-task conversation. Contrast this with group work, where there are numerous conversations proceeding at the same time, many of which, accompanied with a sly head turn and nod to co-conspirator, mysteriously transform into talking-points patois[2] the moment I approach.

Am I wrong? Is it merely the case that the group work I am so shamefully satirising is simply bad group work? Did the ITT provider with the knowing smile, and patient sympathy for my plight, have that deft touch for the group task that will take me many, many years (even decades) to master?

I haven’t watched Star Wars, so I don’t know where Yoda lives. If anybody could tell me, I would be grateful. Other than that, maybe Sylvester Stallone could direct a training montage for me. I’m only asking because these are the only conceivable ways I could ever make group work, well, work …

What bothers me most is the astonishing lack of integrity in the educational profession. There is a doublethink at work here. We know that group work has been a massive failure. This is not a research paper but here is just a sample: educational outcomes in France and America,[3] McKinsey analysis of PISA test scores,[4] and Project Follow Through in America.[5] In spite of all this – and let’s be clear, this is only the millimetrical pinnacle of the iceberg – we, as teachers, still decide to bring out the bells and whistles and turn ourselves into glorified morris dancers for the sake of a good observation.

Meanwhile, the people who observe the arcane ritual that is group work, and haven’t actually taught a lesson since Tony Blair was in power, take notes and determine that these showstopper lessons are the gold standard for everybody. Suddenly, the alchemist’s dream of transmutation is achieved, since the actual standard of these showstopper lessons is pure and unrefined iron pyrite in terms of educational outcomes.

My final say in the matter is that group work allows us to pretend that our pupils are experts. By allowing it, we kowtow to pupil demands to make lessons fun, just like the obese child with the little propeller hat pesters his mother for a second McFlurry. Exam results are worse as a result, and the fissure separating our most advantaged and disadvantaged kids (32 million words, and counting)[6] yawns into a gaping chasm.

[1] Guidance: Teachers’ Standards, Available at

[2] Talking points is an oracy initiative. The idea is that you can give children sentence stems and that this will allow them to have expert discussions within groups. This is equivalent to dumping a load of PVC piping and spanners on a kid and expecting him to fix the sink.

[3] E. D. Hirsch, Why Knowledge Matters, p. 132: ‘the decline of student verbal achievement in France [in the 1980s] mirrored the infamous fall of verbal scores in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.’ On page 144, Hirsch states that the ‘child-centred skills curriculum had caused the average of literacy scores to fall four-tenths of a standard deviation.’ Among children of laborers and unemployed, this figure was six-tenths.

[4] David Didau, What’s the Best (and easiest) Way to Teach? Learning Spy (25 September 2015). Available at ‘The more lessons focus on inquiry-based methods, the lower student attainment becomes.’

[5] E. D. Hirsch, Why Knowledge Matters, p. 48: ‘Vocabulary size [knowledge, in other words] is the single most reliable correlate to reading ability.’

[6] Alex Quigley, Closing the Vocabulary Gap, p. 4.

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