1 Using groupwork to explore ideas

Many students have half-formed ideas about why things float and sink that they have developed through experience. Perhaps they have never had the concepts relating to why things float or sink explained well, or have never had the opportunity to talk about why things really float and sink.

Understanding such a basic concept is quite important for health and safety reasons. For example, many people who transport goods and people around their community using the local waterways, rivers and the sea need to understand the principles.

Groupwork allows students to talk legitimately about their ideas and share both good and half-formed ideas with others. Together, such groups can share their understanding and test out ideas that they are not sure about by doing investigations. The reason that groupwork rather than pair work might be better in some instances is that if all your students have half-formed but different understandings about floating, then they are more likely to reach a better understanding with more elements to integrate together. Your role as a teacher is to help the students link together their ideas, organising them into the accepted understanding of why things float or sink. Talking to a small group while others are working on another task means that you can support these students in clarifying their thinking by asking questions and providing relevant information.

Now read Case Study 1, about how a teacher explored early ideas about floating and sinking with her young students in Class I.

Case Study 1: Using small groups to explore early ideas

Mrs Khanday teaches Class I and tries to offer her class a stimulating environment by providing times when students can choose what they do. Over time she has gathered together materials that she can put out for the students to play with. She has made dolls out of scraps of fabric and made clothes so that students can role play with them. She also has a big plastic tub that she fills with water and puts toys and containers in for the students to enjoy water play. She describes how she joined a group of students playing in the water.

I had organised a session for my students to choose what they did. There were lots of different things for them to do. I decided I was going to stay with the water tub to listen and interact with the children as they played with the toys and containers that I had put in the water. I wanted to explore their ideas about the properties of water and especially why things float. They were playing with stones and putting them into the different containers.

As they played they were talking to each other. Two girls were putting one stone in each of their containers and floating them across the tub. As I asked them what they were doing, they said they were taking people across the river and the boys were carrying stones from the quarry across to the road. One boy said: ‘If I put all the stones in this pot, it will be quicker.’ He did this and the tub sank. The other boy said that you have to do it one stone at a time. At this point one of the girls said that there should only be one person ‘because that’s how my dad takes people across the river in my village’ [Figure 1].

Figure 1 Men crossing the river.

They then talked about what was best, so I asked them what would happen if they tested their tubs to see how much they would hold. I asked them if they could find out. One boy put all his stones into his tub, as he did not think that his would sink like his friend’s. His tub did sink, so I asked what would happen if he put a stone in one at a time. As he did this, we tried counting each one. Some students were better at counting than others, but this provided a good opportunity for them to practice their counting skills.

The boat sank and I suggested they could count the number of stones again to check. I asked them what would happen if they put just six stones in the tub? Would it float or sink? The group of five students was divided, with two saying it would still sink and the rest that it would float. It floated, and so after that I suggested they tried the different sized foil tubs I had collected to see if they all sank with the same number of stones.

My students played for a long time, testing their ideas, and then returned to their role play of ferrying people across the river. The stones became people crossing back and forwards across the river. There was much talk about what they were also taking or what they were going to do on either side of the river. There was much discussion about not overloading the boat or it would sink. The students were fully involved in exploring the idea of floating and sinking within the context of their story and role play, and working together as a group.

Pause for thought

  • What do you think the students gained from being able to play and learn like this?
  • Have you ever had to work in groups?
  • How much did you enjoy it? Why?
  • Did talking help you learn from your other group members? How?

Groupwork gives students of any age the time and a safe environment to share their ideas, ask questions and make suggestions. Often, as adults, we do not have as many ideas or think as deeply about an issue until we talk with others and share ideas. It is no different for students in school.

Learning is a social process (Vygotsky, 1978), and being able to talk with others about what is happening in science will help students to make better sense of what they see or experience than if they had to do it on their own. Talking with others about why we think something happens helps us to think more deeply about the problem. In fact, often it isn’t until students talk about an issue or problem that they begin to think of possible solutions or reasons as to why something happens.

Using groupwork as a way of organising your class will give all students more chance to speak and take risks with ideas without being embarrassed or shy in front of a larger audience. See Resource 1, ‘Talk for learning’, especially the section on planning talk for learning activities in the classroom. This will build up their confidence and interest. However, just asking children to work in groups is not enough. You need to think carefully about how to compose the groups, what task they will do and what will happen after the discussion. The rest of this unit will help you think about these issues.

Groupwork is a natural progression from using pair work, but once you use groupwork it does not exclude you from still using pair work. Each method has its merits and helps you manage large or small classes in different ways. The focus should always be on using the best strategy to achieve the intended learning outcomes for as many students as possible.

Why this approach is important

2 Methods and benefits of using groupwork