Working in Groups



This article was reworked in May, 2009 after initially being published in the textbook Images in Life by Max Darby.


Most Art teachers are familiar with large group or whole class discussion – usually about artists and artworks. Sometimes these are centered around selected cultures, art movements or specific periods in time. I enjoyed immensely the’ round table’ discussions in which my senior classes participated. Sometimes, however, I was frustrated when some students had a tendency to sit back and let others do all of the challenging talk.


The larger the group, the more easy it is for some students to not participate fully. I should know. I used to do so myself at school in my own English Literature classes. I’d listen carefully and takes lots of notes, especially about things my teacher said! While I always scored well in tests and exams, I realize now just how much I missed from not taking a more contributory approach. Educationally, the loss to me was far more than just in terms of knowledge – it was also about my educational development and my commitment to learning.


In large groups of students who are not in the senior years, opportunities are often lost to contribute personal ideas and opinions, to test them against the rigor of other students, and to reflect on alternative points of view. From the teacher’s point of view, large groups often present problems in ensuring that all students have their minds on the set tasks and are not disruptive to other students or become bored.


The use of smaller groups (with, say, six to eight members) is one way of overcoming these problems. By enabling all class members to participate fully there will be a greater expectation not to let other members of the group down.  There is far more likelihood that all will participate positively. The shy or quiet student will feel more comfortable in a smaller, supportive atmosphere. This can be enhanced by actually allocating some specific tasks to be undertaken by individual members within each group. Group members might themselves be given the responsibility to allocate tasks within their group.


Students who feel concerned about expressing their opinions about art in front of the whole class are more likely to be willing to take risks and to voice their ideas and opinions in smaller groups. Most important, however, is that small group work assigns to students an active, rather than a passive, role.


If art students are actively engaged in such activities as discussing controversial art issues or artworks, sharing their own ideas, solving artistic problems, analyzing and interpreting artworks, preparing presentations for the rest of the class, or planning how to go about particular tasks, they are more likely to be testing their own ideas and hypotheses, questioning each other’s assumptions and reflecting on their understandings about Art than if they are treated merely as passive recipients of knowledge. Opportunities for students to listen and talk to each other are vital to the development of articulate and responsive individuals who can express themselves clearly, appropriately and with confidence.


Apart from these things, using a group approach in the art room from time to time will keep your students more interested in the content you introduce within each lesson.


Advantages and limitations of various groupings


The following points provide some insights to consider when setting up class groups in the Art room (remembering that there are some activities which suit each of the following groupings, as there are for full class discussions and individual work).


Pairs (2 Students)



Often good for the very quiet students because the one-to one situation provides more opportunity for each to talk and encourages a friendly relationship to develop

Often easier for class management

Reduces problems of inattention, interruption, and non-participation

Useful as a starting point for students who are not used to working in larger groups

The one-to-one situation is good for peer tutoring

Some activities are well-designed to suit two participants.


The range of ideas contributed in a pair situation is more limited than in a larger group

One person may tend to dominate.


Small Groups (3 – 4 students)



Many of the advantages of ‘pairs’ are retained in small groups while and increased range of ideas is contributed

There is a greater chance of productive and positive disagreement



In groups of three, a two-against-one situation may call for sensitive intervention  o the part o the teacher

Groups of four sometimes tend to divide into two pairs polarizing discussion in an unproductive way


Medium Groups (5 – 8 students)



Can provide stimulation and interaction without becoming unwieldy

Allow patterns of interaction and relationships to develop


Medium and large groups make it increasingly difficult for all participants  to become fully involved

Opportunities to develop an extended argument are limited


Large Groups (Over 8 students)



Fewer groups for the teacher to supervise

Appropriate when two or more classes have been combined for a particular purpose

One way of ensuring a good gender mix and balance while still ensuring each person has friends in the group

Useful for projects which are too large for small groups. The group may still function as a whole while assigning tasks to individuals or pairs



Groups may become inefficient and unwieldy, particularly if leadership is lacking within the group

Quieter students are less likely to contribute and more likely to drop out of discussion.


I always asked my students to discuss important things that came up in group work and discussions with their parents, even if briefly. It was amazing just how many parents mentioned this to me – and sometimes voiced their own opinions!


It is important to keep in mind that in some cultures, students are not encouraged to provide their own ideas and input. The teacher tells them what to think and even what to feel. You need to be sensitive to this if you have students in your classes that are ‘International’ students. Working with them for a short while should help you to determine how best to work with such individuals.


Organizational aspects


Whenever a class works in groups, ample opportunity must be provided for inter-group or class reaction. Oral or written reports, charts, audio-visual, video or PowerPoint presentations are some of the methods that might be used. It is sometimes valuable to allow students to determine how their group informs the other class members. Students need to feel that what they have done and what they have been involved with is of value and importance. Other organizational aspects that need to be considered include


setting and introducing topics

observing the working of the groups

participation of teacher (s) if appropriate

ensuring someone records the findings and group discussions

ensuring each group member receives a copy of the group report

forming a panel of group members to report back to the class and to answer questions

ensuring that all students have opportunities to vary their roles –  e.g. writing reports, recording, leading, etc

ensuring that all students have opportunities to provide their own questions, research areas and topics

evaluating the success of each task

providing a workable and suitable physical environment for group work

carefully monitoring the time required for worthwhile group work to occur without rushing it and without boredom setting in.


Teachers could also consider the possibility of including other people in some sessions, for example, interested parents, other teachers or other classes etc. These could contribute meaningfully to discussion on controversial topics. Some schools already organize Art camps with nearby schools and students from different backgrounds could make a positive contribution. It would be possible to combine group discussions about art and artists with art-making activities that further explored the building of supportive group relationships.


In addition to the combined school camp idea, it would be possible to organize a combined discussion seminar or workshop where multiple groups could address key art uses and topics.

Dr. Max Darby (Art Consultant Asia/Pacific Region)




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