I just finished reading an article called “When Smart Groups Fail” (Barron, 2003). It’s a study of groups of three sixth graders solving maths problems. Barron divides the groups into less successful and more successful at solving the problems and then analyses what features of their group work were significant.
Surprisingly to me, the success of a group of students was not influenced by:
- the amount of talk
- the average achievement level of the students
- whether anyone in the group had a correct idea
Instead, Barron found that group success was marked by:
- accepting or discussing correct ideas rather than dismissing them
- correct ideas were brought up when they related to ideas that were being discussed at the moment
- group members paid attention to each other and if the others were paying attention to them
- group members physically showed their togetherness by eye contact and standing around or pointing to a common workbook
This article’s findings indicate to me that my classroom culture can lead to better group work. I can help students learn to discuss a mathematical idea by building on each other’s thoughts. A well-managed whole group discussion can lead to more cooperative group work sessions. I want my students to learn to listen carefully to what is said and then agree or disagree or ask questions. I can request these responses in whole class time. Then students will see they are the norms that also should guide their group work.
Furthermore, the groups in Barron’s study were of mixed ability and their previous achievement levels did not correlate with their success as a group. This adds to my feelings about the benefits of mixed ability teaching. If students of differing abilities can be helped to communicate well, they can all achieve well.
The study also found that students in successful group went on to be more successful in individual tasks. Interestingly, students in less successful groups did as well as if they had worked on their own. Thus poor group work neither helped nor hindered their achievement. However, good group work improved the success of individual students in to a significant degree.
The school year is just about to start and I am looking forward to inculcating a culture of social, mathematically focused talk.
Barron, Brigid. “When Smart Groups Fail.” The Journal of Learning Sciences 12.3 (2003): 307-359.