As I walked up to my office just now after class, I thought "well, I guess I can blog about how group work saved my sorry ass today." Because it did: I have been really busy with other work and so my class prep suffered this week. Then, when I arrived at my office this morning, I realised I'd left a lot of my notes on the book at home -- my notes about specific passages on certain pages. So I really had to pull something out of thin air in a hurry.
But to say that (and yes, we all do group work on the fly sometimes) implies that group work is a fallback, a slacker thing to do, a time-filler. And if it's poorly thought out or badly executed, it can be all of those things. But pedagogically I really believe in the value of group work, if it's handled well. I've learned a lot of things over the years about what works and what doesn't, and I've read some of the theoretical research, and so I'm fairly confident in my ability to design an activity that will take the students to a new level of learning and engagement with the material. But good group work isn't just about clear expectations, clear outcomes, and so forth. It also depends upon the foundation you've already laid down in the class. If students know you expect them to come to class prepared to discuss, they're not freaked out by a group activity. If your activity builds on concepts already discussed in previous sessions, then the students begin at a point of confidence, on their way to something new. I use brief regular group work sessions in all of my classes; and then sometimes, like today, I use groups for more extensive things.
Today's class worked out really well. The activity looked as though it was something I'd carefully planned to follow Tuesday's lecture on critical strategies. I discussed the critical framework we'd set up on Tuesday, assigned topics to the groups, had them discuss the topics in the novel (all related to a particular character), and present passages for discussion to the class. Then I extemporized some pretty good lecture material out of what they brought forward. They worked hard, I worked hard, and we all came to a better understanding of what's going on in this book.
Days like this are really some of my favorite teaching days -- days when I surprise myself. I usually teach in a fairly free-form manner, rarely from a scripted lecture. But it's extra nice to hear smart ideas coming out that I didn't quite realise I had. Days I wish I had a tape-recorder, since I won't remember this in two years when I teach this course again.