The idea of grouping students by ability has generated a lot of controversy in recent years. “If the advanced students move at their own pace, won’t the rest fall farther behind?” Leveled grouping can create equity problems when taken to extremes. But flexible grouping can support differentiation while creating opportunities for all students.
The question raises issues of equity that have been debated up to the Supreme Court. Bonnie Grossen explains makes the case that courts have supported leveled groups in some instances. Cases such as Hobson v Hanson specify that grouping must show demonstrable benefit for all students.
Flexible groupings are key to showing that benefit. In other words having the ‘low’ students keep to their own all day and in every class is a big no-no.
In order for grouping to be effective (and legal), students must be able to change groups over time. After all, the goal is to provide better targeted instruction. If we believe we are targeting student needs, some students will advance more quickly. These students then move to a more challenging group. If this never happens, the grouping is not doing its job.
Flexible Grouping Within Classes
‘Tracking’ describes separating students into separate classes, based on ability. Tracked students also tend to stay within their track (honors, remedial, etc) throughout their education.
But if we’re talking about flexible groups within a classroom, the fuss is overblown. Some education leaders (including many that I respect) are concerned that students will be embarrassed by being in a “low group.” It’s true that some students will be uncomfortable in a lower group. But the goal is not to create a permanent underclass of students. It’s so we can better meet their needs.
When I go shopping for jeans, I still start at the 33 inch waist section. I haven’t been able to wedge myself into one of those for years, but I just don’t like the idea of being a 35 or 36. Buying those 33 inch jeans might make me feel better momentarily, but having to wear those jeans would just be painful. It might even cause lasting damage.
That’s what we’re doing when we avoid addressing students’ legitimate learning needs. If I’m in 3rd grade and reading on a 6th grade level, forcing me to read 3rd grade books is insulting. It also won’t support my growth as a reader. If I’m in 7th grade, but proficient in math up through 3rd, asking me to find negative fractional slopes is similarly torturous.
The Art of Flexible Grouping
Part of the art of teaching is meeting student needs without making them feel inadequate. Teachers should explicitly teach students about growth mindset, so students know why they are being grouped. It’s not about labelling. It’s about helping.
We should also be subtle in how we group students. Yes, the group that is farthest behind will usually figure it out. But it still helps to mix up the numbers of groups (3 is highest, 2 lowest, 1 and 4 middle) or use names instead of letters and numbers.
It’s also important to ensure that students are not always grouped by ability. Many activities work better in mixed groups. I tend to use leveled groups for problem-based learning and mixed groups for project-based learning.
It may seem paradoxical for students to work at their own pace and meet content standards. But students can learn more efficiently when work is targeted at their level. Even students moving at a slower pace will cover more content than they would with a one-size-fits-all approach. Of course, simply having students sit in circles is not enough. The success of a small-group class depends on intentional groupings and best practices for facilitating group work.
In her article entitled “Ability Grouping is not Just Tracking Anymore,” Carol L. Tieso presents a careful examination of many types of student grouping. She emphasizes that the strategy employed is the main determining factor of its effectiveness: “When ability grouping is utilized in a flexible and temporary manner, with appropriate curricular adjustment, significant achievement gains can be realized.”
Designing Lessons for Flexible Grouping
One way to adapt a traditional classroom for small group learning is to simply rotate from group to group – you can give the same type of lecture you would give to a full class, but targeted to a smaller group – you can differentiate by the pace of the lecture, or by giving the same lecture at different times. While you work with one group of students, others complete independent activities.
Inquiry-Based Learning will make the process even more student-centered. The basic idea is that students can often figure out much of what we are accustomed to ‘teaching’ them, and when they do, they tend to be more engaged in the process. They also develop a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts.
A lesson plan based on the 3-part workshop model can provide some structure for educators interested in this approach.
The Best Groupings Are Intentional Groupings
Whether you are using leveled grouping (homogenous) or mixed grouping (heterogenous), it is important that your grouping decisions are intentional. Decide why you are conducting a small group lesson, and ensure that your grouping decisions support that purpose.
Data from an online platform, such as Khan Academy or NoRedInk, can help you decide how to split students into groups and what content to assign. This system works best with a progression of skills, such as math or grammar, since students will be at different stages of mastery.
You can also used leveled groups to have students read materials (fiction or non-fiction) at different levels. Tools like Newsela (for current events) and Books That Grow (fiction and non-fiction texts) adjust the reading level of the same text. You can also have students select materials appropriate for their own level. I use a Team Story Analysis template to guide students in analyzing short stories while working in groups.
Once I introduced flexible grouping I realized that some students work much better in groups than others. Their Social-Emotional readiness is a key part of success with group process.
Part of the beauty of group-work, though, is that working in groups helps develop social-emotional skills. Students come to understand their own learning process (metacognition) at the same time they are learning content. When my students work in small groups, I cycle from table to table. I generally try to avoid giving them answers, but seek to scaffold their group process by asking questions.
Once they get the hang of it, though, they should make up for lost time by learning new material much more quickly, not to mention the social-emotional benefits they will accrue by consistent and purposeful communication with their peers.