Productive Group Work


Productive Group Work

by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher and Sandi Everlove

In Productive Group Work, the authors discuss the importance of effectively working in groups. As most people have discovered, not everyone knows how to work in a group. In fact, many people have difficulty working collaboratively to accomplish a task. This isn’t to say that students don’t work collaboratively – most share collaboratively online and, if they are gamers, work in a team-oriented situation online. Many students play school sports and are aware of team dynamics. However, working collaboratively in a work environment isn’t always the same as some of these other situations. The company softball team has a different dynamic than the company team responsible for sales and advertising.

The introduction outlines how, for the most part, group work, especially in schools, isn’t necessarily effective. In the first chapter, they provide the characteristics of productive group work and it’s essential role in learning. Learning theorist Lev Vygotsky and his work on social learning outlines the essential role that groups and social learning have in the development of the child. The learning that children do takes place on two levels:

first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people … and then inside the child

Learning is more effective in a social context where interactions with others pushes one’s understanding to new and deeper levels.

“we must view group work as more than a means of completing a project or task. Productive group work is an essential stepping stone to learning and mastery.

The book focuses on the five principles from the work of David and Roger Johnson (1975) –Learning Together and Alone :

1. Positive Interdependence
2. Fact-to-face interactions
3. Individual and group accountability
4. Interpersonal and small-group skills
5. Group processing

Through explanation and specific classroom examples, the authors demonstrate and explain how a teacher can effectively help students to work collaboratively and develop the necessary skills to be effective in a collaborative group situation.


A Student’s Worse Nightmare: Group Projects

Each of the chapters combines sound theory and practical information so that teachers can begin to use the information in their own classrooms. The book is 117 pages in length but provides some very good charts, formats and questions for consideration that will help any teacher to develop a comprehensive plan for collaborative work.

Templates like the Peer Response Techniques are helpful in planning and working with students to develop skills in working with other people.

p. 78

Classroom Implications

As a Social Studies and Humanities teacher at the middle years and senior levels, I began my teaching thinking that I could just put the students in group and they would know what to do. Wrong. I found out quickly that didn’t work and the work that was done and the classroom chaos that ensued did not allow for very productive learning. So I began to experiment and over the years learned that what is described in the book is, in fact, essential to effective collaboration. As an administrator, there are practical points to consider when thinking about collaborative groups with staff. Defining group norms and expectations before doing any work is an important part of effective collaborative efforts.


This is always a hot topic when it comes to group work. I struggled with this for some time being aware that students within groups didn’t always equally share the load. However, after starting to plan using Understanding by Design I began to develop group projects that had an individual component to them which required students to gather information that would then become part of the greater group product but would be their individual assignment. Then, after reading Ken O’Connors – A¬†Repair Kit for Grading I did some more adjusting to this so that the group projects reflected a number of Social Development attributes which were reported separately – this is the current format of many report cards – but individual assessment comes from an assignment related to the work done in the group.

Classroom Example

To introduce students to systems, they are required to build a lego project using different system formats which allow for different types of interaction among the group members within a specified amount of time. Each group has a different type of system model to follow. This allows students to see how communication might work in different systems and how individual interpretations affect the effectiveness of the work within the system.


Students then had to reflect upon the model, describe the strengths and weaknesses of their role, where they might find this model in a working situation, the effectiveness of the model and how they would improve the model to make it more efficient.

I also began to work with students on presentation skills Рreading the information word for word off of a powerpoint was not an effective presentation. This video was one I have used to begin a discussion of what effective presentation might include. Because we read some of the book A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink, we also view a few of the videos to have students determine what makes an effective presentation. We create a rubric which is then used to provide formative feedback. Summative assessment comes from an individual assessment.

From an Administrator Point of View

What I especially like about this book is that it provides practical information that teachers can use within their planning that will make a difference. It identifies that working in a group requires that they model and teach students the expected behaviours. A co-teaching model would be very beneficial to demonstrate to students how two people work together to complete a specific task – describing to students the role of each person – maybe including other support people that students might not be aware of their roles – to diagram and visualize the group processes.

Within a staff, some of the information is a powerful reminder that as lead-learners, we need to be cognizant of the roles people take on on staff and be sure develop a collaborative culture where all members work toward a common vision and not a few people doing a lot while others let them – characteristic of what many teachers probably saw while in school. As leaders, we need to ensure that we refresh ourselves with the different principles outlined in the book – ensuring our groups at the school level work effectively.


  1. Pingback: The Challenge of Grading Groupwork | Virtual Schoolhouse

    • Reply

      Thanks. I read through your post and the whole group work/assessment piece is part of a discussion that we need to have as we ask teachers and students to work more and more in a collaborative manner – Inquiry/PBL – since the work is an integral part of the learning. You ask some great questions and pose an added dimension to our need to examine the group work aspect – blended learning/online learning environment. It is a subject that we need to delve into as we see the dimensions of learning evolve and change at a quickening pace. Thanks for sharing your ideas and the post!

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