1. Characteristics of a group

A gathering of people is a group when its members are collectively conscious of their existence as a group; when they believe it satisfies their needs; when they share aims, are interdependent, like to join in group activities, and want to remain with the group. Though groups occur in many forms and sizes, there seems to be a set of characteristics fairly common to them all. The following features are of consequence to any teacher involved in group teaching.

1.1 Time Boundaries

Past:

Members of a new group bring with them sets of expectations arising out of what they know of the origins, history, or composition of the group - which significant people are to be in it. They build up expectations from any statements they have heard about the group's purpose and task. Members may also bring with them attitudes to other members born out of prior relationships outside the group, and the group itself may carry a reputation for a particular style, climate, or level of achievement. In the course of their education, students will probably have picked up comments about how well or badly the group went in the previous year. The formation of a group requires that someone make decisions about place, resources, and the size and composition of the group. Whoever undertakes this task, for example the tutor, will have considerable influence in the success of the group, at least in its initial stages.

In an established group, members may carry with them feelings derived from previous meetings; they may look forward to the resumption of an exciting interchange or may dread the re-enactment of conflicts and time-wasting tactics. They may have to do preparatory work, such as a paper or a report, and their anticipation of what will happen may cause them to approach or engage with the group in a predetermined way. New members may need careful briefing on the group's norms and procedures.

Present:

While a meeting is in progress members may be taken up with thoughts about what may be happening concurrently elsewhere: an important external event, what is happening in another, possibly similar, group; why an absent member is not there, and so on.

The agreed duration of the discussion group imposes another time boundary. The tutor's awareness of time constraints in terms of the achievement of certain aims, the appropriateness of tasks, when to intervene, curtail, summarise, and so on, is of great importance. Conflicts often arise between "coverage" of topics and completion of tasks on the one hand and the need to finish on time on the other.

Future:

Whatever matters are discussed, decisions made, or problems solved, the minds of group members will at some stage turn to what will happen when the meeting ends. They may be thinking of what they have to communicate and to whom, of resuming former roles and relationships outside the group. They may also have it in mind that they may be answerable later for what they said or did within the confines and culture of the meeting, especially to other members with whom they may have a less democratic relationship in the wider world. Finally, there will undoubtedly be an anticipation of the end of the meeting which will bring with it a sense of relief, if it has been tedious or tense, and of sadness if it has been exciting and involving.

Questions to ask about time boundaries are:

  • What do students need to know beforehand- place, time, aims, membership, roles, prior tasks?
  • What expectations are they likely to have-from previous studies, from other students?
  • What prior experience of group discussion might they have had?
  • What external distractions might occur?
  • Should there be any rules about openness and confidentiality?
  • What are students expected to do after the meeting?
  • How acceptable are these future tasks?

1.2 Physical environment >>