Geoff Richards

The value of learning groups

How to help students learn better

Think back to when you were a kid or a teen and what your least favourite school subject was. It wasn't that it was boring because if it had of been then other students wouldn't have liked it or excelled at it. It was because it wasn't particularly accessible to you as a learner.

And this is how English is to a lot of students when they have to study it as a compulsory subject. They may even enjoy or be competent at parts of it but it is still the least accessible subject to them because of language barriers.

Beyond primary 4 or 5, a lot of homework becomes a copying exercise or it simply just doesn't get done. I never set it. Even with adults at private language centres.

As individuals, many of us don't like working on our own and if you do then I would suggest it's either because you're genuinely good at it or you were conditioned to do so during your school years.

Working with other people is always more enjoyable and it takes the pressure off of weak spots too. This is teamwork at its most basic level. Everyone can bring something to the party and if they can't then they don't end up feeling like an idiot.

Use this in the classroom. Create learning groups and don't get hung up on trying to balance learning styles and skills. Let students self-select and name themselves. There were always a few kids on my school sports teams that I couldn't stand but I always wanted to be on their teams because they were good players.

The only time you should step in is if the very best students do try to cluster themselves. This rarely happens though. Cheats!

Learning groups can become teams in the classroom. Like in games or weekly competitions. But where they can really work is outside of the classroom. Set them stimulating and enjoyable activities to complete. Sourcing things from the Internet or the library. Drawing and labeling. Writing funny shorts. Creating profiles of the latest pop or movie icons. Designing and describing superheroes. Producing mini comic books. What I'm saying here is just make it interesting for them.

If you have large class sizes then be realistic. You can't benefit every student. It's almost impossible. But what you can do with learning groups is reward the best students with things that they actually want to do. And conceivably help students that are normally difficult to reach.

So what if some students in learning groups don't lift a finger? Most of those don't usually do so in the classroom or where homework is concerned either!

So, how big or small should a learning group be? The ideal is to have around five students on each team. That way the chance is increased that all of them actually contribute something to projects.

Learning groups aren't an answer to large class sizes and they aren't the answer to students that struggle with English. What they can do with the latter though, is to make the subject more bearable.

Pass the good news on to teachers in the grades above you too. Show them your successes. What works in one school year should certainly work in the next. And it doesn't matter what sort of teacher you are either, serious or funny.

For primary 3 and above try experimenting with the Internet. Create collaborative blogs for students. Let them choose the design and name too. Have regular email competitions.

If your school has computers and a local network, you can also create team folders. Get them using the fun features of applications like PowerPoint and Paint.

Let learning groups maintain their own CDs and have them submit projects on them. Show these in class if they're really good.

Ask students if they play Audition and other online games and there's your answer to whether they can use a computer or not.

Put up performance charts in class but don't turn them into a race. Highlight what each learning group did well. Award prizes and certificates where necessary.

You don't need to be a rocket scientist. Honest. And a lot of students here in Thailand might just thank you for it.


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