The importance of small group pedagogy

It’s been a month since the new Mini-Lesson Planner was released and the positive feedback from the MP community has been outstanding. In this time, 4,332 mini-lessons have been recorded across the nation with another 2, 317 scheduled. With that, we’ve found ourselves having a lot more conversations around Mini-Lessons and, even more specifically, discussions around small group teaching. One of our School Improvement Consultants, Bec, decided to spend a little time investigating the pedagogy behind small groups and why they are a powerful resource in any classroom. 

What the literature says about small group work

Mini-lessons provide a different learning environment, to ensure teachers can establish a variety of tailored educational contexts and access to resources to optimise objectives, outcomes and experiences. Not only does the facilitating teacher have a greater chance of identifying what students know, don’t understand and can clarify any misconceptions, but small group collaboration also allows students to self-reflect and clarify the accuracy of their own understanding and those of their peers (Crosby, 1996; Jones, 2007). 

Pollock, Hamann & Wilson (2011) acknowledged that the primary purpose of the more traditional whole-class teaching is to transmit information in mass capacity usually with tight or short time frames to do so. However, outside of this lecture-style intention, research found limited effectiveness in other essential learning objectives, such as critical thinking, self-motivation and long term conceptual understanding (Bligh, 2000; Buckley et al., 2004; Hammar Chiriac, 2014).

Pollock, Hamann, & Wilson (2011) also cites research that credits these discussions with improving “students’ mastery of the subject material and problem-solving ability” (p.49).

Their research in comparing the benefits of small group discussions to whole-class interactions also found that- while there were similarities in understanding and reaching the objective of the task – other learning metrics (such as participation, expressing thoughts, peer relationships, application, raising questions and stimulating interest) proved much higher in small group discussions. They concluded that “student to student interaction as a crucial component of critical thinking, problem-solving and deep learning”. Plus, for the Hattie lovers out there, his analysis indicates that small groups have a considerable impact on accelerating student learning with an effect size of .47 and cooperative learning at .40.

What you can do in your classroom

Within the MP model, there is no longer the pressure and need to pour curriculum into students. Confucius and Socrates saw the advantages of teaching in small groups more than two thousand years ago (Jones, 2007), and we finally have the space to reap the many benefits of small group collaborative discussions .

But as always, that’s easier said than done. Research also calls out that those who have a history with traditional whole-class teaching might be a little resistant at first – students and teachers – but that the benefits outweigh those initial challenges (Jones, 2007). Some teachers have bravely shared with us how much they previously enjoyed those starring moments up the front of the class imparting knowledge. Those moments aren’t gone. In fact, we believe there are more opportunities for those moments with students. Considerably in fact, because those students are specifically ready to be engaged in that concept and are ready to really appreciate what is being shared with them. 

Jones (2007) is spot on when he says:

“The teacher…is the single most important factor influencing the success of any teaching. Even for teaching and learning activities where a traditional approach is not used, the teacher is still the seminal influence on the effectiveness of teaching.”

It’s important to acknowledge that we, as teachers, are all on a continuum of harnessing the power of Mini-lessons. For some, we may not be as comfortable teaching in a small group capacity (yet!). At the same time, others may like to refine their strategies and tool kits when working within Mini-lessons. If you find yourself not facilitating mini-lessons as confidently as you’d like, here are just a few ideas you might like to try: 

  • Just give a Mini-lesson go! 
  • Have a Google session. See if there is one small strategy you might try implementing. Mini whiteboards? Think-Pair-Share? Questioning techniques?
  • Ask your colleagues about the strategies they use or know. Maybe even ask others from different schools and experiences through the Community Hub?
  • Ask your students the types of experiences and reasons they enjoy during mini-lessons. What do they think could be better? 
  • Have a quiet moment and reflect on what it is that you’d like for your students beyond their formal schooling. 
  • Work with a peer to observe each other’s Mini-lessons. What do they notice? What do they wonder? 
  • Film yourself during a mini-lesson. How much time are you speaking versus student discussion? How many open questions are asked versus closed questions?
  • Reflect if there are structures and routines set up in your classroom that create the opportunity for mini-lessons. 
  • Don’t forget to cut yourself a break! It’s about improvement, not perfection!

References: 

Bligh, D. A. (2000). What’s the use of lectures? San Francisco: Jossey- Bass.

Buckley, Geoffrey L., Nancy R. Bain, April M. Luginbuhl, and Mary L. Dyer. 2004. ‘‘Adding an ‘Active Learning’ Component to a Large Lecture Course.’’ Journal of Geography 103(6): 231–237.

Bushra (2012). Advantages And Disadvantages Of Pair And Group Work – Psychology Resource. Tutorhunt.com. Retrieved 12 August 2020, from https://www.tutorhunt.com/resource/3199.

Crosby, J. (1996) Learning in small groups. Medical Teacher, 18:3, 189-202, DOI: 10.3109/01421599609034160

Hammar Chiriac, E. (2014). Group work as an incentive for learning – students’ experiences of  group work. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved 12 August 2020, from http://Division of Psychology, Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning, Linköping University.

Jones, R. (2007). Learning and Teaching in Small Groups: Characteristics, Benefits, Problems and Approaches. Anaesthesia And Intensive Care, 35(4), 587-592. https://doi.org/10.1177/0310057×0703500420

Pollock, P., Hamann, K., & Wilson, B. (2011). Learning Through Discussions: Comparing the Benefits of Small-Group and Large-Class Settings. Journal Of Political Science Education, 7(1), 48-64. https://doi.org/10.1080/15512169.2011.539913

Visible Learning Plus (2017). 250+ Influences on Student Achievement. Visible-learning.org. Retrieved 14 August 2020, from https://visible-learning.org/wp-content/uploads/ 2018/03/ VLPLUS- 252-Influences-Hattie-ranking-DEC-2017.pdf.

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