4. Managing behaviour in small group discussion work
One aspect of English teaching about which student teachers tend to feel most nervous is managing small group work. Towards the beginning of the PGCE English course, at the start of a session on speaking and listening, I encourage student teachers to share their worst nightmares about what might happen when they put pupils into small groups for discussion work. While some student teachers worry about nobody wanting to say anything at all, most student teachers share elaborate scenarios involving chaos, carnage and the complete breakdown of law and order in the classroom. I think it’s helpful for them to share these nightmares simply in order for them to realise that their anxieties are common. And it’s good to acknowledge, as an experienced teacher, that small group discussion is one of the ‘higher risk’ activities that might take place in an English classroom, in terms of the potential for off-task behaviour. However, the session then focuses on how small group work can be set up in such a way as to minimise opportunities for disruption and to encourage collaboration and engagement. Here’s an outline of the session:
Training activity: Female Boxing: An introduction to ‘jigsaw’ as a strategy for organising speaking and listening
- Brief survey of opinions on boxing in general and then on women’s boxing
- Watch ‘Born to fight’ clip from bonus material on Million Dollar Baby DVD (3 min)
- Explain task: small group debate on whether or not women’s boxing should be included as a sport at the 2012 Olympics in London. Each person to be given a role in the debate and time to prepare their arguments for or against its inclusion
- Explain jigsaw strategy: each person will be given a role in the debate. Roles are briefly outlined on pieces of coloured card. There are six roles:
- female boxer
- parent of a female boxer
- parent of a brain-damaged male boxer
- fight promoter
- member of the International Olympic Committee
‘Expert’ groups will then be formed, with all the female boxers together in one group, all the IOC members together in another group and so on. Once the expert groups have had time to prepare ideas and information, groups will be ‘jigsawed’ according to the colours on the pieces of card, with all the reds together, all the blues together etc. Each colour group will have one person playing each role in it. These ‘jigsaw’ groups will then debate the issue of whether or not women’s boxing should be included at the London 2012 Olympics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) member in each group will act as a chairperson and will make the final decision
Give out role cards and re-organise class into ‘expert’ groups
Watch first 3 minutes of Million Dollar Baby, looking out for ideas to bring to your role
Give each expert group a package of material about women’s boxing to read and gather ideas from. Members of expert groups help each other to prepare arguments in favour of or against women’s boxing (15 min)
Re-organise class into ‘jigsaw’ groups by colour
Student teachers debate the issue of women’s boxing in their new ‘jigsaw’ groups, while IOC member in each group tries to reach a decision (15 min)
IOC representatives from each group leave the room to make their final decision. Rest of the class re-organises the tables and chairs back to their normal arrangement
Announcement is made by IOC representatives about whether or not women’s boxing should be included at the London 2012 Olympics
Working through all the stages of this activity usually takes a group of about twenty student teachers between forty-five and sixty minutes, depending on how heated the debate gets! The rest of the session is then spent encouraging student teachers to reflect on how the activity was set up. I usually use four bullet points to guide their thinking:
- What were the potential risks involved in this activity? At what points and in what ways could it have gone wrong?
- Make a list of things about the way the activity was set up which helped to prevent some of these things from happening. Think in detail about how people and resources were organised, how transitions were made between one task and the next, and so on
- Is there anything which could have improved this activity further?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of ‘jigsaw’ as a strategy for developing pupils’ speaking and listening?
There are a number of issues which it’s helpful to draw out of this discussion. They include:
Transitions from one activity to another are potentially risky moments in any lesson, but in this sort of lesson the stakes are even higher. During the course of this lesson, pupils will be moving into their expert groups and then moving once again into whole new jigsaw groups. There will be times when they will have to listen to instructions as a whole class and other times when they will be discussing in small groups. Getting student teachers to appreciate the importance of giving really clear instructions about exactly when and where to move, what pupils should take with them when they move, and what they will do when they have moved to another part of the room is vital. Encouraging student teachers to think through how having the roles on different coloured pieces of card helps with the re-organisation of groups is really important too. Student teachers also need to be encouraged to think about the transition from small group discussion to listening to the teacher as a whole class. Teaching them simple instructions such as telling pupils with their backs to the teacher to turn their chairs around can make a big difference. These seem like very small details, but experienced teachers know that these kinds of practical details can have a huge impact on the behaviour of pupils in activities like this.
Student teachers’ discussion of this activity often leads them to reflect on how different pupils might respond in a mixed ability class. It’s helpful for them to think about how the different roles in this particular debate might be used for the purpose of differentiation. With student teachers, I always allocate the roles randomly, but they might think about how teachers might deliberately allocate certain roles to certain pupils in order to challenge or support them. A very confident speaker who often dominates discussion might be given the role of the IOC representative, for example, in order to encourage him or her to listen more attentively and learn how to manage others’ contributions. A disaffected pupil who found it difficult to engage with speaking and listening work might be given the role of a female boxer in order to boost his or her confidence by placing him or her at the centre of the debate. This is a really good opportunity to link English work to the Every Child Matters agenda.
- Hiding behind a role
Having experienced this activity first hand, student teachers often speak of the degree of safety they feel as a result of being asked to play a role. Behaviour problems sometimes occur during discussion work because pupils feel as if their own views are being attacked or disregarded, or because they simply don’t have an opinion on the topic being discussed. Giving each of them a role to play can help pupils to feel less vulnerable, provide them with a ready-made point of view to defend, and therefore make them more likely to take part in the discussion and stay on-task.
- Choice of topic
Speaking and listening activities sometimes fall flat because the choice of topic is felt by pupils to be artificial, irrelevant, or only of interest to half the class. When student teachers are asked to comment on the choice of topic of women’s boxing, most feel that it would be a good choice for a KS3 or KS4 class because it would appeal to both girls and boys, it’s not something that many of them would have considered before, and it appeals not only to sporty pupils but also to those interested in equal opportunities. Taking a live issue that is actually being debated right now also adds a sense of purpose and immediacy to a task. It’s helpful then to discuss how the choice of topic can make or break a speaking and listening activity. Encouraging student teachers to think of their own topics and roles for a ‘jigsaw’ activity can then be a good way to finish the session.
Q1, Q2, Q10, Q19, Q25, Q29, Q30, Q31