Learning in groups

Group work  unleashes brain power, writes Nancy Walser  in Harvard Education Letter.

Done right, group work can harness the natural propensity of humans to interact, and—most important—make learning for a wide variety of students more engaging, memorable, and equitable. While it is more difficult to do than traditional lecturing, teachers say, most of the hard work is in the preparation, and the payoffs make the time invested well worth it.

On Out in Left Field, Katharine Beals is dubious about the ability of children on the autism spectrum to benefit from group work.

Walser quotes Judy Willis, a neurologist and teacher, who says group work can “work against factors known to inhibit learning, such as the fear of making mistakes or becoming discouraged.”

Group work can also increase engagement because individuals can be assigned roles that allow them to be “experts in something,” so that they can be challenged at a level appropriate to their understanding, she says. To discuss and present various theories for why the Jamestown settlement failed or why the dinosaurs became extinct, for example, more advanced students may be “producers” charged with stopping their group periodically to summarize what is being said; those with attention deficits might be assigned to be “prop directors” to keep track of supplies needed to make a chart for the final presentation. 

Beals responds:

And the shy, socially awkward child could play the part of the quiet guy who keeps to himself and is shunned by the rest of the community.

And the child with Asperger’s could play the role of “little professor”, who spends the entire time lecturing his group mates. Unless that’s somehow contrary to group-centered discovery learning…

On Kitchen Table Math, commenters note that students shouldn’t be discussing the reasons for the failure of the Jamestown settlement because it didn’t fail. That was Roanoke.

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