I’ve been meaning to read this for a very long time, and finally got round to it in 2020 after being really pushed towards the importance of group dynamics during my MA Trainer Development module in 2019.
Title: Classroom Dynamics
Author: Jill Hadfield
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Year: 1992 (note, there are two versions – the purple one above which I read, and an orange one with a photo on it, though I believe only the cover changed and not the contents)
Place of publication: Oxford
Affiliate links: Amazon
Other links: BEBC (You’re supporting a great bookshop if you use this link)
WHAT’S IN IT?
The book starts with a clear introduction and guide to how to use the book, including why Jill felt that a book like this is necessary for teachers. The rest of the book is a series of recipe-style activities divided into three sections and twenty chapters, covering every aspect of building, developing, and maintaining group dynamics, as well as how to deal with the inevitable problems which sometimes occur. These are the chapters:
- Section A: Forming the group
1 Breaking the ice: warm-up activities for the first week of term
2 Thinking about language: individual learning styles and group strategies
3 Thinking about groups: group strengths, individual contributions
- Section B: Maintaining the group
4 Bridging gaps: opinion- and value-bridging activities
5 Maintaining fluidity: reseating and melee games
6 Getting to know each other; humanistic exercises and personalized grammar
7 I did it your way: empathy activities
8 A sense of belonging: whole group identity activities
9 Establishing trust: trust- and confidence-building activities
10 Staying positive: encouraging positive feelings
11 Group achievements: product-orientated activities
12 Bringing it together: pyramid discussions, feedback techniques, and summaries
13 That patriotic class feeling: inter-class activities and competitions
14 Ensuring participation
15 Learning to listen
16 A sense of direction: setting, assessing, and resetting goals
17 Coexistence and compromise: individual wants and frustrations; group solutions
18 Coping with crisis: some group problems
- Section C: Ending the group experience
19 Ending with positive feelings
20 Evaluating the group experience
The book ends with a self-reflection questionnaire to help you consider your own experience with a group.
The book is based on a clearly-defined need which Jill identified in response to ‘moaning and groaning’ from a questionnaire she conducted with Angi Malderez to invite teachers to share common staffroom moans. They were surprised to discover that the main issues seemed to be connected to the atmosphere in the class and the chemistry of the group, regardless of the level of experience of the teachers concerned. Along with replies from the questionnaire, Jill shares her own experiences of both good and bad groups to inform ideas of what makes successful and unsuccessful groups. She has written a highly practical book to address these problems, but in a very down-to-earth way, with clear caveats that the book is not a panacea, not will it solve all the problems teachers might have. She also shares her own experiences of trying out the activities, for example on page 85. Throughout the book, I felt like Jill was talking to me directly in a very accessible style, as if she was in the staffroom with me.
The list of characteristics of an unsuccessful group on page 11 and a successful group on page 12 would make an excellent starting point for a workshop I think, and definitely reflect experiences I’ve had in the past with both good and bad groups.
‘How to use this book’ suggests a range of ways of exploiting the activities, including the key point that “this book is not an emergency handbook” (p17) and that activities should be used throughout the course, not only when there are problems. There is lots of guidance about what kind of activities might suit different types of group, and clear information about how to integrate activities into the syllabus. Jill acknowledges that you may not have time to squeeze in extra activities to an already crowded syllabus. This is supported by a comprehensive index of topics and structures, showing that group dynamics activities can be tweaks on activities already present in your lessons, rather than add-ons. Most activities have information about which other activities could follow or precede them, so that you could build up a linked programme fairly easily.
For activities such as 2.2 What kind of language learner are you? there are guidelines about how to handle the discussion after a questionnaire to ensure the teacher helps to build a supportive environment between students, rather than rejecting difference.
The bulk of activities are about maintaining group dynamics, and this made me realise just how much I’ve neglected this – I think many of us believe our job is done if we’ve completed a few getting-to-know-you activities in the first lesson or two, but many of my worst experiences with groups have come from allowing groups to settle into negative patterns which are very difficult to escape from.
There are activities for situations related to group dynamics which hadn’t crossed my mind before, for example the group that knows each other too well (chapter 7).
The activities are very student-centred, and get them involved in reflection on what makes a successful group, as well as creating the conditions to build empathy and trust between the group members. They really feel like they could add a whole extra layer to what happens in the classroom.
The examples of conflicts and reassuring words in chapter 18 were particularly useful:
Finally, not all group problems are resolvable. While I do believe that most potential problems can be solved, or better, pre-empted by the use of techniques such as those in this book, the belief that the teacher is responsible for every group problem can lead to much unnecessary guilt and soul-searching. (page 148)
It may happen, though, that your best attempts to resolve the crisis fail and the group cannot be reconciled. […] you may feel guilty, inadequate, or demoralized: somehow as teachers we have the feeling that ought to be able to resolve all human conflict, and if we meet a problem that defies our best efforts to solve it we have failed in our job. Whatever gave us this idea? (page 157)
(reply to a questionnaire) This group at least helped me to realize that it is a kind of arrogance for me to think that I am able to handle every classroom situation that comes my way – or even understand it. (page 158)
Those three quotes really made me think and I’ve come back to them again and again since I read the book. There were other sections that made me think too: the discussion on pairwork on p110, the potential reasons for tensions in intermediate and above groups on p94.
Most of the activities would be very easy to adapt to a classroom nearly 30 years since the book was written, but I think it’s possibly time for an updated edition. There’s a lot of scope for modern technology to be exploited to build on the ideas in this book, and I believe this is something that Jill has written about elsewhere. An updated edition might also make teachers more likely to pick the book up, as sometimes we neglect valuable classics (of which this is definitely one!)
Other suggestions/ideas for tweaks/improvements include:
- how to work with groups with continuous enrolment (most activities seem focussed on a groups which have the same make-up throughout the course) or integrating students joining a group which has already formed
- a balance of ideas for full-time courses and part-time courses (many activities seem to be aimed at groups which have lessons every day intensively, rather than than once or twice a week over a year, and some have the timing listed as e.g. 2 lessons on consecutive days)
- removing the reference to learning styles and left- and right-brain thinking in activity 2.1
- more guidance on the processes of compromise for activity 17.4 (timetabling priorities)
- a mention somewhere of how long a lesson is (many lessons are described as taking 1 lesson/up to 1 lesson)
- an acknowledgement of the amount of preparation some of the activities require, for example 10.4 (medals)
This book is practical and supportive, and really made me think. I’ve started reading more about and presenting on group dynamics as a result of reading this and a few other tings, and I’ve realised just how much of a keystone they are in successful language learning. Jill’s book has allowed me to recommend various ideas to teachers at our school. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to try many out myself yet, but I definitely intend to in the future. Watch this space for more related ideas on my blog in the future! It’s a must-read, and every staffroom should have a copy.