Strength in Numbers

By Adele Andre

We welcome to the hipsters’ blog Adele.  Adele has written a great blog on how to create a collaborative learning environment in your classroom.

There are many misconceptions about the notion of ‘group work’. The common belief is that requires huge amounts of preparation and can only be done with the very best of classes. The thought of ‘letting go’ and trusting the students to work together to create, develop, solve or even learn something entirely new, can be scoffed at under the pressures of time, curriculum content and behaviour management.

However, those who regularly use group work effectively will advocate that it has actually saved time, helped develop classroom relationships and allowed students to flourish both individually and as part of a team.

Humans are social animals; we are not designed to work in isolation…why should learning be any different?

How do I conduct group work effectively?

A healthy volume of studies, meta-analyses and educational academics provide evidence to show the benefits of ‘wisdom in crowds’. John Hattie with his ‘Visible Learning’ and the Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF, 2018) are two areas to look to in order to prove this point. However, this is only relevant when group work has been conducted effectively, which means it has been introduced correctly and regularly over a period of time. Unfortunately, “create a poster as a group” has never, and can never be classed as ‘effective’.

Getting technical…
The first point to clarify is the difference between ‘collaborative’ and ‘cooperative’ learning. Educational researchers use these words interchangeably despite the fact that there is a subtle difference between the two approaches.

Read on, it might just revolutionise your own approach to group work and help explain the importance of group work. 

Cooperative Learning


It’s all about STRUCTURE! If you are the teacher who doesn’t feel ready to ‘let go’ this is the right approach for you! Each learner within the group has a defined and specific role, which will contribute to an end group goal.

Some teachers see this approach as slightly more labour intensive as it may require the creation of ‘role cards’ or specific success criteria for each student. On the other hand, if you have a few spare moments, familiarise yourself with Kagan Structures. Kagan Structures are content-free, they require minimal planning and should be used regularly in a classroom routine. I used Kagan structures whilst working at a ‘Cooperative’ School during my teacher training and it was amazing to see how easy a structure was to implement when students had been given the opportunity to practise it.


A simple example of a Kagan Structure would be having a group of four students writing their ideas/ opinions/ answers on one-quarter of a sheet of paper (each student uses a different coloured pen). In the middle of the paper, the shared ideas/ opinions/ answers of the group are written. The different coloured pens and areas of writing highlight individual participation, whilst the centre of the paper demonstrates group analysis and cooperation. A perfect illustration of Kagan’s requirement for there to be ‘No Hogs or Logs’ – each student must equally participate and their participation is visible.

Collaborative Learning

This is different.

This type of learning is commonly used at a university level and within industries, so essentially, life beyond school. This approach centres on working together to think in a more CRITICAL and ABSTRACT way. Collaborative learning involves creating knowledge not always working with the knowledge you have already been given. In effect, it is less structured than the carefully organised approach of Cooperative Learning. With this approach, you want your groups to have developed entirely different ideas/ answers/ opinions as you are promoting creative, individual thinking.

There are many different Collaborative Learning Techniques you can use. A personal favourite of mine is linked with how you ask students to organise information:


Which one is for you?
The answer to this question should be both! Some classes you may feel more at ease to allow for collaborative learning to take place (there is a wealth of literature on different techniques but a good starting point would be ‘Collaborative Learning Techniques’ by Barkley et al). On the other hand, if you are just finding your feet with group work, have a look at some Cooperative Structures like those proposed by Kagan (Kagan, 2013) – these are particularly useful where you need to control a specific outcome or you have a class who are slightly resistant to group work.



Not one to work in isolation, I asked 5 different colleagues for a ‘tip’ when it came to group work:
DO NOT GIVE UP – often the first time you try a new technique, it doesn’t necessarily work the way you planned it to, this does not mean it doesn’t work. Be reflective, adapt, try again.

AVOID LABOUR INTENSIVE TECHNIQUES – Card sorts that require laminating, cutting, sorting, shuffling are not the ‘ideal’ and are off-putting to doing group work again. Try blank laminated cards that the students can write on and pass to another group to sort/ shuffle/ organise.

ROUTINE IS EVERYTHING – Once you have found 3 or 4 structures or techniques that work for you, use them regularly and often. The students need to practise them too!

PRAISE AND ENCOURAGE – For one reason or another, we can sometimes feel a little uncomfortable in group situations. The power of praise should not be underestimated.

ROLE MODEL – If you are a team leader, a middle manager or someone conducting CPD sessions, use group work too! Why keep ideas to yourself, try out some the techniques you have been using in your classroom.

References and extra reading
Barkley, F, Howell Major, C, Cross, K (2014) Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 263-267.
Educational Endowment Foundation (2018) Collaborative Learning. Edition. [PDF]. Available at:
Kagan, S (2013) Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures. California: Kagan Publishing.

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