The need to belong to a group is well established. Groups exert powerful influences over their members. In gangs, group influences can be destructive. However, groups such as the nuclear family, small military units and classrooms have been shown to exert considerable positive influence in the lives of individuals. Unfortunately,however, according to Edward A. Wynne, University of Illinois, and Herbert J. Walberg, University of Chicago, the effectiveness of learning groups in American schools is compromised by their short duration.
Unlike many foreign public school systems in which groups are maintained over the course of several years, American education has placed little emphasis on group longevity. In Japan, where cognitive learning is stressed, elementary teachers stay with their classes for two years or more. Japanese teachers say that the first year is for getting to know the students and the second is for teaching.
Obviously, Japanese educators believe that it is more important for teachers to know students well than to be specialists in one grade level or content area.
Stability, longevity and intimacy are characteristics of influential groups. Wynne and Walberg speculate that school groups have less impact on children’s lives than family and peer groups because school groups are less intimate and not as long-lasting. They point out that healthy group cohesion and close adult/student relationships need time to develop. Continuity, therefore, is a crucial factor. In recognition of these facts, large middle and high schools have begun to divide students into small “houses” or “teams” that remain consistent for three or four years.
Wynne and Walberg recommend that all schools try to keep groups of students and teachers together over longer periods of time. The size of the group is not as important as its continuity. They add that group activities in classrooms must be monitored and directed to ensure that learning is being promoted. They also believe that groups can provide an opportunity for children to learn understanding and tolerance of others.
“Persisting Groups: An Overlooked Force for Learning”, Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 75, Number 7, March 1994, pp. 527-530.
Published in ERN, May/June 1994, Volume 7, Number 3.