Children benefit from working in different groups: independently as individuals, collaboratively with a partner or in a small group on different occasions. Which of these you choose for a particular activity will depend on the activity and what you want to achieve but, over time, children need opportunities to work in all three ways.
Group membership may need to change from time to time so that children experience working with different people. Sometimes groups will be of the same level of attainment, sometimes of mixed levels of attainment. Friends usually work together well. On occasions, you may decide to form single-sex groups.
For some discussions, either you or the group may want to assign roles to particular members: for example, leading the discussion, taking notes, drawing diagrams, leading the presentation, and so on. Children who are quick to suggest ideas may need to be asked to manage the discussion in order to let others contribute.
Having ready an extension activity to give to any group that reaches a conclusion quickly allows other groups time to fine-tune their thinking.
What this looks like in the classroom
There are times when you will want the children to work independently. This might be just for a very short time. You might be working with a group or the whole class and you want them all to think about a question on their own before recording their response on a mini-whiteboard. For example, as a way to help develop fluency in arithmetic you might have a starter activity about factors and ask children to quickly write down some factors of 12, of 18, of 11. If they work on their own and record on mini-whiteboards you will quickly get a sense of how confident and secure children are in their knowledge and understanding. At other times you may want them to work on their own for a more extended length of time and this will give you more extensive information of the children’s own knowledge and understanding of the topic.
When you ask children to work independently it is important that you are clear why you are doing this, and equally it is important to explain to the children your reasons. This can help them understand that working independently is a good way for them to find out how secure they are with the work and that this can help them become better learners. As a part of this children need to understand that making mistakes is an important part of learning. Good teachers help children understand this.
When you ask children to work collaboratively it is important that the task you have given them is one where it makes sense to collaborate, where collaboration can help children learn better, and again it is good to explain to children your reasons for asking them to work in this way.
For example, you could give children a page of completed sums where some sums are correct and some are wrong, and ask children in pairs to discuss them and see if they can spot the errors. Or you could ask them to discuss whether a statement such as ‘When you multiply a number it always gets bigger’ is true.
Productive collaborative work requires purposeful activities!
Related information and links
To read more about purposeful talk in maths lessons go to Developing pedagogical understanding