As schools across the nation are back in full swing I would like to share some thoughts I have been having about the ways we group students in our classrooms. I'll start by sharing some of the ways I used to group students and how my thinking around student grouping has shifted.
As a new teacher I was primarily concerned with classroom management - How was I as a 21-year-old supposed to make sure a few dozen sixth graders stayed on task? As I became more comfortable with "managing" my classroom, I began to focus more on instruction - How could I best engage my students in learning?
I used grouping structures I had learned about in college and those I saw modeled by veteran teachers. These structures included having students sit in rows and columns during the first seating rotation of the year because I was told it would set the precedent that we don't always get to talk in class. By my third year of teaching I no longer started the first day of school with students in rows, but shifted towards setting the precedent that we collaborate in class beginning on day one.
Sometimes I grouped students by having a balance of boys and girls, talkers and quiet students, and variety of other characteristics. I was taught to group my tables to make sure there was heterogenous representation based on ability. It looked like this.
I was told that it was important to have students work in mixed-ability groups so "low" students could benefit from "high" students, but that we also wanted "medium" students in the mix so the discrepancy between abilities wasn't too extreme. Looking back, I see the merit in wanting all students to be able to learn from each other, but I also see major concerns with this model.
Who are we to label students as "low" or "high" based on previous grades or single test scores? All students have strengths and areas to grow in. Just because they score lower on a test, does not mean they need to be labeled as "low." When students are consistently grouped in this way, they take on labels and roles. Students may expect to always be the "low" student who is there to be given ideas from their peers. Other students may expect to always be the "high" student who either gets to take charge of the conversation or feels forced to help their peers.
If we know there are benefits to students collaborating, we know there are benefits to having students work in heterogeneous groups, and we know it can be harmful to label students as "low" and "high," then what other options are there?
As mentioned in another blog Creating Space for Students in Our Classrooms, recently Building Thinking Classrooms by Peter Liljedahl has been popular among new things educators are trying in math class. A practice Liljedahl recommends is to consider "How We Form Collaborative Groups in a Thinking Classroom." He recommends frequently forming visibly random groups. This means that the groups are random and students can visibly see they are random (a.k.a. the teacher is not choosing groupings and telling students they are random). He recommends forming groups of two in grades K-2 and groups of three in grades 3-12.
Liljedahl states, "We know from research that student collaboration is an important aspect of classroom practice, because when it functions as intended, it has a powerful impact on learning (Edwards & Jones, 2003; Hattie, 2009; Slavin, 1996). How we have traditionally been forming groups, however, makes it very difficult to achieve the powerful learning we know is possible. Whether we grouped students strategically (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Hatano, 1988; Jansen, 2006) or we let students form their own groups (Urdan & Maehr, 1995), we found that 80% of students entered these groups with the mindset that, within this group, their job is not to think. However, when we frequently formed visibly random groups, within six weeks, 100% of students entered their groups with the mindset that they were not only going to think, but that they were going to contribute. In addition, the use of frequent and visibly random groupings was shown to break down social barriers within the room, increase knowledge mobility, reduce stress, and increase enthusiasm for mathematics" (Liljedahl, 2023).
Over the last year I have been able to implement visibly random groups with elementary students and adult learners. I have also been able to engage in conversations with other educators and leaders about how the practice is going in their settings.
I have seen students be both nervous at first and excited when they are placed in random groups. I have seen students engage in collaborative conversations, with some students who may usually talk less talking a little more.
In my current work I have more opportunities to facilitate mathematical tasks and other learning tasks with adults than with K-12 students. When I implement visibly random groups with adults, I do notice more engagement. Educators are used to working with their grade level teams in professional learning sessions and used to sitting with their friends at conferences and in courses. There are amazing benefits of allowing this educator choice, but there are also benefits to having educators work in random groups on tasks. When teachers are working with a group different from their team, they show up differently. They all speak a little more instead of taking on the unspoken roles they play in their teams and friend groups. It's been an amazing experience to facilitate and observe.
So, why did I title this blogpost "Intentionally Grouping Students in Our Classrooms" rather than "Randomly Grouping Students in Our Classrooms"?
First, I selected the word "intentionally" rather than "strategically" because I am not referring to the strategic act of the teacher deciding where students go in their groups, but to the intentional act of teachers deciding when and why to use various grouping structures and strategies.
Second, sometimes I think good things (even well-researched good things) can go too far and we throw out everything else we have ever known to be best practice. I do recommend that every K-12 math teacher try visibly random grouping frequently; however, I do not recommend random grouping as the only way students ever work together in math class. There is a time and place for students to work with self-selected partners and a time and place for students to work together based on where they are at with given skills and concepts. I do think we should listen to the research-based recommendation to have students work in groups of two in K-2 and groups of three in 3-12; however, I also think there are certain tasks that lend themselves to better work with partners in upper grades or groups of four in some cases.
When I speak of 'intentionally grouping" I am inviting educators to be intentional meaning "done on purpose" or "deliberately." Don't put students only in random groups from now on because a book said to or because I said to, but try different evidence-based grouping strategies based on the goals of your task and see how students respond to visibly random grouping.
Recently I have started opening my professional learning sessions by telling participants that we will be working with a variety of grouping structures in the session, that I have intentionally selected the grouping structures (including random groups of three) to meet the goals of the tasks, and that I will include icons on the slides to let them know of the grouping strategy being used for each given task. It's amazing to see the way educators engage 1) when the grouping structures change frequently throughout a session and 2) when they work in random groups of three.
As you plan for grouping students in your class, I encourage you to consider the following:
Questions for thought:
How can you select a grouping structure that promotes collaboration and aligns with the goals and nature of the task?
Is the way you are getting students into groups clear and easily doable for students?
Are the groups changing frequently?
Do all students see themselves as having a voice in the group?
The purpose of grouping structures is to engage students in collaboration, thinking, and learning.
Liljedahl, P. (2023). 14 Practices. Building Thinking Classrooms. Accessed 2023. https://buildingthinkingclassrooms.com/14-practices/
Oxford Langauges. (2023). Intentional. Dictionary.
Let me know how you intentionally group students in your classroom.
p.s. I recommend these Student Grouping Pencils to help form random groups.