Why do teachers put children into groups within their classes? They certainly don't do it because it is easier; it is much more demanding than whole class teaching. Cooperative learning and team work produce valuable social benefits; however, research in the 1980s, by people like Neville Bennett and Maurice Galton showed not only this but also that it increased academic attainment and children's self-esteem.
The Big Idea behind this teaching approach is to reduce the teacher-pupil ratio in order to facilitate learning.
Common sense tells us that the best pupil-teacher ratio is 1:1, but in a class of 30 children that is impossible. Research and experience tell us that groups of 4-6 pupils are the most effective while still remaining manageable in a cohort of 30 children. The 'quality time' between teacher and pupil greatly increases with this type of organization and hence the quality of teaching and learning, which is the object of the exercise.
How teachers organize their class is up to their professional judgment.
Sometimes because of the nature of the task 'whole class' teaching is the most effective method; it may also be appropriate if the class is new to you and is particularly challenging.
On the other hand, the nature of the task may require cooperation, as in topic work, or be enquiry led, as in problem solving, where you want the children to work together to succeed.
It may be more effective to teach a new concept or method to a small group at a time, or it may be an effective means of differentiation, i.e. by putting children into ability groups.
On other occasions we only have enough resources for one or two groups at a time, so we don't have a choice. At times I have divided the class into two large groups working on different tasks and found that to be a good first step for both me and the children.
There is no particular right way; we need to make a judgment between manageability and effectiveness. My advice would be to begin with the type of class organization that both you and the children are comfortable with and progress from there, but be eclectic.
Children need training in group behavior just as you have trained them in class behavior. It is the same methodology: make your expectations clear and praise the behavior you wish to achieve.
What are these 'group behaviors'? Common sense tells us that we want children to:
Share; take turns; listen to each other and help each other.
Many of these types of behavior run counter to children's natural instinct, so we have to replace their natural instinct with the new types of behavior we are looking for. Cue: Operant conditioning!
All our previous experience tells us that if we are to succeed we need some 'rules' about listening to each other; not interrupting; taking turns; helping each other etc.
Depending on the age of the children you can set down clear 'rules of engagement' or suggest, and involve the children in, coming up with their own rules. Children have a strong sense of fairness and having ownership will increase their fair play. It also makes an appropriate PHSCE lesson and provides a good example of a life strategy of how to start to make order out of chaos. It is worth practicing the rules as separate 5-minute exercises the week before so that it is not completely new to the children when it comes to the real thing. Take things a step at a time and get it right.
Make the rules and train the children.