From Forming to Performing: Group Dynamics

The following is a summary of my presentation at ILC IH Brno’s ‘Imagine – a conference for teachers’ teacher training conference on Saturday 24th February…

Why group dynamics? 

In short, human beings are group beings. Most of us grow up in groups (families), work in groups (companies), play in groups (teams) and live in groups (communities). It’s no coincidence that solitary confinement is the worst punishment in prison: we form a sense of self from our interaction with others – it’s what makes us human.

It’s strange then that developing a class’s group dynamics is an under-explored feature of teacher training, and that research into the importance of the group in the learning process isn’t filtering down into the classroom. Hadfield calls successful group dynamics ‘a vital ingredient to the teaching/learning process’, as a cohesive group supports and motivates itself to get the best out of all its members.

What can a teacher do?

A teacher forming a successful group should not see their role as a ‘sage on the stage’, but rather a facilitator in helping students develop themselves. According to Rogers, this requires three key characteristics: empathy (understanding students), acceptance (positive attitude to students) and congruence (self-honesty – desired self and behaviour align).

Another important factor is an understanding of leadership styles (after all, the teacher is the leader of the class!) and when each one can be best employed. Lewin’s (1939) leadership styles are still widely referenced as three broad concepts: autocratic (do this in this way!), laissez-faire (do whatever you want), democratic (how do you think we should do this?). Using Tuckman’s stages of group development, the teacher’s role as the leader of the group should adapt to the group’s situation.

Tuckman + Hersey and Blanchard – the key theoriestuckman.png

Stage 1 Forming: Students are anxious and dependent on a teacher. They try out new methods and look for acceptable behaviour, rules and norms.

Stage 2 Storming: Students rebel against each other and the leader (the teacher). They can’t accept the norms and rules or concentrate on a given task to fulfil it successfully.

Stage 3 Norming: The group becomes more cohesive, students help each other in order to reach their aim. They begin to accept the norms and their roles. The group does not get out of control, students eagerly exchange their views.

Stage 4 Performing: Everybody contributes to task completion. All problems are resolved, solutions are easily found. Members of the group concentrate on the interpersonal relations.

Tuckman’s model can be combined with Hersey and Blanchard’s situational leadership theory to suggest the optimal leadership style for each stage of the group’s development.


So what does this mean in practice for a class teacher?

Group stage: Forming

Leadership style: Telling (more authoritarian) means fully supervising students’ work and giving the sense of direction; the students know what their roles are and what the aim of a given task is.

Practical applications: Ice breakers; sharing personal information; agreeing on and signing class rules.

The fear of the unknown should slowly but surely give way to an acceptance of others in the group. I’m sure we can all imagine a situation where we’ve been new to a group – where do we fit in? What’s appropriate behaviour? It’s the teacher’s job to set these activities up and allow group members to feel comfortable as soon as possible.

Group stage: Storming (in Tuckman’s original research, only 50% of groups went through this – groups often jump from forming to norming, but getting stuck here can be hell for teacher and students alike!)

Leadership style: Selling (authoritarian – democratic) occurs when the ‘teacher-leader’ convinces the students of the importance of the task; the students become more aware of the value of their learning process

Practical applications: Positive enforcement of class norms; feedback on behaviour, rather than labelling the person (remember Rogers’ attribute of a facilitator as empathetic); giving students classroom jobs so they try our different class roles; peer teaching; SMART goal setting (with a focus on mastery goals – experiences, applying knowledge whenever possible).

The hardest thing here is to balance caring with not taking students’ behaviour personally, and not engaging in conflict with rowdy students, as this only leads to a downward spiral of negativity. Patience and perseverance (although it’s not easy!)

Group stage: Norming

Leadership style: Participating (democratic) allows the students to share their ideas and cooperate with the teacher during the decision-making process; the learners are encouraged to interact with each other and with the teacher.

Practical applications: More co-operative tasks; dividing exercises between students. Cooperation is achieved if all participants do their assigned task separately and bring their results to the table. For example, posters on a particular environmental problem can be completely individual then made into a group display.

Now that students are more comfortable with their role in the group, it’s time to get them involved in the decision-making process of how to carry out tasks.

Group stage: Performing

Leadership style: Delegating (democratic – laissez faire) entails passing the responsibility for the learning process on to the students; it means that the students are in charge of choosing and directing the activities, however, the teacher is facilitating the group processes mainly by monitoring group work.

Practical applications: More collaborative tasks, which can’t be done alone. Numerous studies show that collaborative learning, as compared to working independently, results in deeper information processing and more meaningful psychological connections among participants i.e. group cohesion. For example, the Island Project in small groups.

Now running at optimal level, with group members supporting and respectfully challenging each other, collaborative tasks are a great way to maintain this fusion. This can’t happen every lesson, of course, but it’s great to include every now and again. Numerous studies show that collaborative learning, as compared to working independently, results in deeper information processing and more meaningful psychological connections among participants.

Group stage: Adjourning (not on the graph – added 10 years after the original in 1975)

Don’t underestimate the power of the ending! According to Dörnyei and Malderez (1997), a negative ending could ‘have detrimental effects on future L2 learning experiences.’ Indeed, a student’s memory of learning English in a particular group will be shaded by how it ends, as the Peak-End rule suggests (I actually heard about it for the first time from ILC IH Brno DOS Dave Cleary at October’s conference in Brno):

peak end.jpg

Practical applications: End of course celebration – each student responsible for an area of the celebration; end of year certificates; presentations on favourite moments.

So to conclude, the group can be a powerful learning tool when its collective force is properly harnessed. Part of our job as a teacher is to adapt our leadership style and the activities we provide to make the group more cohesive, which supports our ultimate goal: for learning to take place in the classroom, and for students to have a positive impetus to continue learning English in the future.

Any comments, please let me know below. Thanks!


Dagmara, G., 2012. Teacher’s Action Zone in Facilitating Group Dynamics, LINGVARVM ARENA Vol.3 (89).

Dörnyei, Z. and Murphey, T., 2003. Group Dynamics in the Language Classroom, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Haynes, N.M., 2011. Group Dynamics: Basics and Pragmatics for Practitioners, University Press of America: Lanham

Hermann, K., 2015. Field Theory and Working with Group Dynamics in Debriefing, Simulation and Gaming Vol 46 (2), Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Heron, J., 2006. The Complete Facilitator’s Handbook, London: Kogan Page.

Kozar, O., 2010. Towards Better Group Work: Seeing the Difference Between Cooperation and Collaboration, English Teaching Forum Vol.48 No.2.

Phu Quy, P.H., 2017. Group Dynamics: Building a Sense of Belonging in the EFL Classroom, English Teaching Forum Vol.1

Snider, B, 2005. Clowning Around: There’s a Comedian in Every Classroom, Edutopia. Available at: (Accessed 23/1/2018)

Williams, M., Mercer, S and Ryan, S., 2015. Exploring Psychology in Language Learning and Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wijayadharmadasa, S.M.T., 2010. The effectiveness of group dynamics in English language classrooms, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka: Colombo.

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