TEFL Group Dynamics

An understanding of the concept of group dynamics provides valuable insight into the processes involved in a successful group lesson. This awareness can assist the TEFL teacher in identifying what stage the group is up to and the direction it is taking, ultimately enhancing the cohesiveness of the group and the learning experiences achieved.

One of the most well-known and widely used theories of group dynamics is Tuckman?s (1965) four-stage model of the ?Group Cycle?. This represents a sequence of processes that are not necessarily in order, but which are linked to and determined by each other, and seem to be readily observable in groups. The stages of ?forming?, ?storming?, ?norming?, and ?performing? are identified by Tuckman and an additional stage of ?mourning? / ?sojourning? was added by Heron in 1989.

The first stage discusses the formation of the group through: defining, structuring and conforming to procedures; orientation; trust building; acquainting activities; and recognising mutuality. As in the ESA (engage / study / activate) approach utilised by TEFL International, this coincides with the engage phase and is characterised by ice-breakers, inclusion / approval tasks, and a dependency on leadership (both verbal and non-verbal).

The ?storming? stage is described as a period of rebelling and conflict, where there is counter-dependence on leadership, recognition of the decision-making processes, attempts to create order and establish rules, and emotional responses to task demands. Cultural differences existing within the classroom may influence the degree to which this consciously expressed. For example, a group containing Thai students may remain in a more submissive role during this phase due to a level of respect that is given to the teacher and therefore an avoidance of conflict.

The third stage of ?norming? identifies a time of committing to and taking ownership of the goals, feeling comfortable with each other, and establishing boundaries. Such ?rules? are more readily defined during the study phase of ESA practice when interdependence is established. Board work, demonstration, eliciting responses, and worksheets are techniques that assist the group in moving through this stage.

Following stage three, a period where the group really begins to ?perform? and become a team that achieves its objectives has been recognized. This stage is again characterised by interdependence in addition to affection, functional relationships, negotiation, and collaboration. The activate phase in ESA practice is relevant during this time. Ideally, a period of increased confidence in the task at hand has assisted the student in initiating participation and producing action which is representative of the lesson aims.

Heron?s (1989) final stage of ?mourning? / ?sojourning? describes the changing dynamics within a group. It identifies that when a group composition alters for whatever reason, including new members arriving, other members leaving, the accomplishment of the task, of the shifting of tasks / roles within a group, then the existing group ?mourns? the loss of the previous group dynamics. An understanding of this when moving group members through the various skills levels at the TEFL International School is beneficial for enhanced teacher practice. Identifying the appropriate time to move a student forward to promote ongoing skills acquisition while remaining sensitive to the social / personal implications of this, is integral to the teacher?s role.

There is, of course, more to effective groups than just knowing the likely cycles. The facilitator?s attitudinal qualities and the group atmosphere (or ?climate?) are interpersonal conditions which will impact significantly on the outcome of a teaching session. Carl Rogers (1967) has discussed how these factors ?arguably help to create an atmosphere of warmth and approachability and helpfully maintain a group climate that feels safe and allows for open discussion?.

The theory of group dynamics and an acknowledgement of the movements between various stages can provide a useful foundation for teachers when engaging in the group process. Although these stages are largely unconscious, an analysis of the group process is possible when these factors are considered. By using this understanding as a tool to review our lesson outcomes, we are promoting a much higher standing of teaching practice.


Argyle, M. (1969). Social Interactions. London. Methuen. Beddoes-Jones, F. & Miller, J. (2005). The Psychology of Teams. Fenman.

Gunn, V. (2007). Approaches to Small Group Learning and Teaching. University of Glasgow.

Heron, J. (1989). The Facilitator?s Handbook. Kogan Page. Johnson, D.W., & Johnson, R.T. (1989). Cooperation and Competition: Theory and Research. Interaction Book Company: Edina M.N. in Kessler, C. (Ed.) (1992).

Morgan, J. (2007.). Positive Interdependence in Project Groups and Oral Presentations. University of Wales.

Rogers, C. (1994, 3rd ed). Freedom To Learn. New York: Merrill. Tuckman, B.W. (1965). Development Sequence in Small Groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63: 284-399.

Author: Peta Roberts

Date of post: 2007-03-29