Why creating intentional groups can help match each student to intellectually engaging tasks.
ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Instructional Design Specialist
Group work is important.
Group work is also hard. It can feel discouraging when we initiate group work and then it doesn’t go as planned, with some students opting out of the assignment while others carry the weight of the task for everyone.
Teachers know that when they have a wide range of students with different learning needs, they can differentiate their instruction. Differentiation often includes creating multiple entry points to content and skills through group work, and we often see differentiation strategies like heterogeneous or homogeneous grouping used to differentiate instruction. But how do we determine which method will help our students reach their learning goals? Which types of grouping are best for which instructional strategies?
The case for homogeneous grouping
Whether matching students in pairs or small groups, homogeneous grouping happens when teachers enlist students with similar learning traits to work together to complete a task (either individually or together). Homogeneous grouping should be informed by data, like students who earned similar scores on a diagnostic assessment, had similar responses in a class assessment, or who shared a misconception about a previous lesson. It's valuable to match similar students together to complete a task that is designed to meet their learning needs. Homogeneous grouping is ideal when the teacher has designed a unique task for each group, is providing a unique text for each group, or has differentiated the content so that groups are aligned with content information they need to examine more closely.
When students are in homogeneous groups, the tasks, topics, or texts they work with should be diverse. This becomes an effective practice because teachers are strategically matching similar students’ with a task that is designed specifically for them. When each group of students is working with a task or topic on their level, they’re able to increase their completion rate, feel confident about reaching their learning goal, and refine their thinking through discussion.
A math teacher realizes that their students had a wide range of responses to adding and subtracting fractions on a formative assessment. Some students are completing all of the addition and subtraction questions with fluency and accuracy. Other students are struggling with subtracting, but showed proficiency with addition, while others are still struggling with the concept of fractions as well as how to add and subtract.
With students performing within these three profiles, the teacher develops a lesson where students are grouped homogeneously and matched with a task that is specific to their learning needs:
By differentiating by student need in homogeneous groups, the teacher is able to match a task strategically to students in their zone of proximal development, which should increase their understanding of the content, create opportunities for success, and increase confidence.
The case for heterogeneous grouping
Homogeneous groups are an important strategy to use, but using them exclusively can be limiting to students. Not only is it important to develop community across a whole class, it’s also important for students to learn from one another and have opportunities to teach each other. Diversifying group structures to include mixed ability or heterogeneous groups gives students exposure to a wide range of voices, and keeps students connected to the class community.
Heterogeneous groups are best matched with complex tasks that have multiple components. Within the group work structure, students can self-select or be assigned roles based on their areas of interest, as well as their performance. Working in a heterogeneous group allows them to build on each others’ ideas, and develop a product as a team, which is effective, memorable, and can be personally rewarding. Group roles or independent tasks are highly effective in heterogeneous groups and teachers will want to design the task so that every group member can take on a component that they can complete successfully.
Jigsaw groups are a great structure to use for heterogeneous groupings.
Within a jigsaw group, the group task is divided into multiple components (one for each student representative), and then brought back together when students inform their team of what they’ve learned. These components might be content-specific (e.g. each student represents a different character from a book, or a different type of problem solving in math). They may also be leveled by text (students divide out leveled texts on the same topic and collaborate on their understanding after reading). The easiest way to organize jigsaw groups is to strategically match students using a grouping strategy.
If there are six groups, each student may be assigned a group number, and a letter which is matched with a task. Group 1 might have students matched with 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D, 1E, 1F (each letter representing a different task).
Students then move into their letter groups (Group A would consist of students 1A, 2A, 3A, 4A, 5A, and 6A) and complete their task. Once they complete their task, students rejoin their number group to share what they’ve learned and complete the shared task or discussion.
In heterogeneous groups, every student is matched with a task that is at their instructional level, and they use what they’ve learned to complete the shared task.
While homogeneous and heterogeneous groupings are some of the most common types of groups, they aren’t the only way to develop strategic collaboration for students. We can also consider grouping based on areas of interest, social dynamics, or even special gifts and talents. What’s most important is that when asking students to work together to complete a task, we are thoughtful and strategic about who should work together, what goal we want them to accomplish, and how we match them to an intellectually engaging task to reach that goal.
Connect the dots between larger goals and the specific needs of your students.
Elementary & Project-Based Learning Specialist
As an instructional coach and elementary specialist for CPET, much of my work with elementary schools has involved helping teachers unpack and make sense of the chosen, school-wide pre-packaged curricula they’re asked to work with — a curricula that is designed by professionals to meet grade level and subject requirements, and includes most, if not all of the materials needed to teach. I often facilitate workshops and professional development sessions, introduce teachers to the curricula and its components, as well as engage in classroom visits and critical reflection conversations with individual teachers to support the implementation of the curricula.
While the curricula is packaged, there’s often a surprising amount of tweaking and adapting involved to make sure the curricula fits the school calendar, the style of the teacher, and most importantly, that it meets the needs and interests of all students. This can be a daunting and challenging task for educators.
How can you make sense of and revise curricula to meet the needs, goals, and interests of your students?
Identifying your goals
One of the biggest challenges I see when it comes to the adoption and adaptation of packaged curricula is just the magnitude and density of it all. There are often many components, books, inserts, handouts, and templates, and this can make it difficult for teachers to even know where to begin. They often express feelings of overwhelm or lack of time or opportunity to make sense of and collaboratively plan with the curricula.
Because packaged curricula often includes all of the individual lessons, with varying levels of detail and information, teachers often fall into the trap of teaching lesson to lesson and relying on the teacher manuals to drive their day-to-day instruction. But this can result in losing sight of the larger goals and what these lessons are in service of. Essentially, teachers can start to become the mouthpiece of a script.
I recently began to work with a school that had just adopted a new curricula for reading. After using a program for a number of years, many teachers were unsure and rather uneasy about this transition. After meeting with leadership and discussing their needs, my goals as the instructional coach were to:
In support of these goals, it was my intention to facilitate a number of workshops with the teachers to first and foremost ease their anxieties, answer questions, and cater to their varying levels of familiarity and comfort with the curricula. From there, we worked together to unpack the curricula in a meaningful and productive way, the specifics of which I will share with you, as I believe they can be helpful when it comes to adopting and adapting any new curricula.
Starting with the end in mind
In order to know where you’re going and how you are going to get there, you need to understand the larger goals and objectives of a curriculum, the driving questions, and the final tasks or assessments. To do this, I would suggest starting with the end in mind. Most curricula I’ve seen offer a unit overview or summaries that are often found at the front. Taking the time to read or skim these overviews can be a helpful starting place. With the teachers I worked with, each grade level engaged in jigsaw readings, where one teacher took on a portion of text from the overviews and underlined and annotated, made comments in the margins, and then shared their thinking, questions and interpretations.
From there, we examined the culminating assessment, asking questions such as:
This exercise was intended to not only understand the assessment as it’s suggested, but more importantly, to provide a lens through which to recognize opportunities for revision, including scaffolding or extending the task, and then consider the implications for instruction. No curricula can take into account the needs and interests of all students, so it is up to teachers to revise and adapt the curricula with their students in mind.
Lastly, we considered the necessary materials, resources, rituals, and routines that would be needed in order to implement the units successfully:
With this larger, more robust understanding of the curricula, teachers can more effectively navigate their curricula and instruction and move away from feeling bound to a script.
Pushing into the pacing calendar
Most often, pre-packaged curriculum includes a pacing calendar, sometimes called a scope and sequence. This calendar offers a snapshot for instruction, including when particular units, (also known as modules or bends) should be implemented, and for how long. These calendars can be helpful when thinking about a school year at large — where you’re going, and how long it’s going to take you to get there. In my experience, the suggested pacing calendars often need to be changed or revised to take into account breaks, testing, and school events. Perhaps more importantly, the pacing calendars need to be adjusted based on teachers’ understanding of the larger goals, objectives, and assessments.
With my teachers, we compared the suggested pacing calendar to their school calendar and grade-specific calendars, asking questions such as:
Asking these questions supported teachers in taking action to make adjustments. Having a larger calendar for instruction can make things feel more manageable.
Identifying the structure of instruction
In my experience, most packaged curricula have a consistent structure and organization, and even specific rituals and routines that define the units and individual lessons. Looking across the lessons and identifying these structures can be very helpful for teachers. Examples include rituals and routines like turn and talks, reflective writing, stop and jots, or structures such as progressive scaffolding. The adopted curricula of this particular school was organized around the workshop model, starting with a connection which led to a mini-lesson, an opportunity for student practice, and then culminated with a share out and reflection of the learning.
I supported teachers in understanding and unpacking these various components and their purpose and then modeled a few of the lessons for them. To facilitate this, we used a template to plan one or two of the lessons, adopting what we liked, and taking out what we felt wasn’t necessary. We revised anything necessary, based on our larger understanding of the goals of the lesson and what teachers thought would be most relevant and important to students. Lastly, we worked to revise the lesson to ensure it reflected their voice and their style, fostering a sense of authenticity and ingenuity that supports relationship-building with students.
By identifying and understanding the key structures, rituals, and routines of a curriculum, teachers can move through the lessons with more clarity and confidence.
Implementing packaged curricula takes a great deal of patience, persistence, and flexibility. We know that no curriculum can be implemented as it’s written if it is going to meet the needs and goals of a particular school community. We have to work strategically, creatively, and collaboratively with our peers to examine the curricula, consider aspects we can and should implement, and what needs to be revised, replaced, or even eliminated.
Are you adapting curricula in your classroom or community? Get in touch with me to receive support throughout the daunting — but doable! — process.
A flexible path toward mastery that provides structured support for students at all levels.
ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Instructional Design Specialist
When I was growing up, my high school Social Studies teacher had a poster hanging on the wall that read, “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” The message was clear, even to teenagers -- the power to succeed or to reach a new goal is often inside of each of us. As educators, we know that our students’ mindsets play a major role in how hard they try, how much confidence they develop, and how committed they are to reaching their goals. But confidence alone doesn’t get them to a point of mastery. And desire alone won’t develop their skills, or increase their knowledge base, or level up their accuracy or precision. For those changes, our students need structured support!
This structured support often comes in the form of scaffolding. Like the large platforms that help construction workers reach the tall exterior of a building, scaffolding student learning creates platforms of support as teachers incorporate challenging texts, complex tasks, and abstract ideas into their instruction. Scaffolding is critical when holding high expectations and implementing a rigorous curriculum — but scaffolding alone doesn’t develop independent learners. Sometimes, scaffolding can become a crutch that teachers and students use, turning a support into a shackle. As educators, we often spend a lot of our planning time thinking about how to build scaffolds to break learning down into manageable components, but we can’t stop there. We must also consider the ways we gradually release scaffolding so that students can internalize and transfer their knowledge and skills to new tasks and topics.
A path toward mastery
Our Progressive Scaffolding Framework outlines a path for educators to consider when setting high expectations for students, helping them find that balance between necessary supports and structured enabling. Building on the ideas of Zone of Proximal Development and apprenticeship theories, the framework outlines a path toward mastery in four stages:
Stage 1: I do, you watch
When introducing new content or skills, we begin with the I do, you watch stage. We initiate this by introducing new concepts alongside prior knowledge, real world examples, or previous units of study. Our goal is to map new information onto our students’ activated schemas so that the new content or skills are contextualized and relevant.
At this stage of instruction, we can prepare and provide a model of the task, using a Think Aloud mini-lesson where we walk our students through an internal thinking process that illustrates how we navigate the task and make decisions. Alternatively, we can outline the explicit steps to complete the task, or provide a roundup of the important information students need to know before diving in.
The I do, you watch process can be presented to students working individually or in small groups. It’s important to remember that even at this stage, students shouldn’t be sitting silently. We always want students actively engaged, so we might add a note taking component, a reflection task, a meta-cognitive class discussion, or an element of inquiry so that students remain intellectually engaged in the process.
Stage 2: I do, you help
After laying the groundwork for the task in stage 1, we can move into stage 2, where students begin working with the content and task materials with support. Working in small groups, students might replicate the model with new information, restate or reword the essential steps in their own words, or engage in a small group discussion or group practice as a way to begin experimenting with and internalizing the skills.
Stage 3: You do, I help
In stage 3, the content and skills should be familiar to students after their initial explorations, and they should be ready to continue in pairs or small groups with more independence. Students are still in the development phase of their learning, so they may need additional support and will benefit from frequent check-ins, and suggested strategies — but here’s where we want to avoid returning to stage 1 supports. We’re looking for students to be engaged in a productive struggle.
Students may benefit from suggestions of “fix up” strategies or options for what to do if they get stuck. At this stage, we want to push students beyond replicating the model or the example by having them practice the skill or apply content with a new format, a new context, or by making connections to other topics within the discipline or beyond.
This is also a great stage to ask students to use one another as resources. While working in pairs and small groups is an excellent way to support students at their level and create opportunities for growth through collaboration, we want to ensure a high level of individual accountability so that some students don’t take on the burden for the group while others opt out of the learning process.
Stage 4: You do, I watch
In stage 4, students have been exposed to new content and skills, they’ve practiced working on a task informally with support, and they’ve begun making connections with other content information or demonstrating their learning through class activities and tasks. At this stage, it’s important to begin removing any unnecessary scaffolds to see what students can do independently.
In the You do, I watch phase, we recommend providing a short review of the process and previous work done up to this point in the learning experience. After the review, we can be clear with students that they’re ready to try it out on their own. Provide a clear task and an adequate amount of time to complete the task (3-4 times as long as it would take you to do it).
Students who are able to take on this challenge and demonstrate their skills individually prove that they’re meeting the expectations of the task and are ready to move forward to the next knowledge block or skill sets. Students who struggle at this stage help us to understand where and why they’re struggling, so that we can return to Stage 3 to provide targeted support.
How long does this take?
Like an accordion, this process can be expanded or compressed to meet the needs of your grade level and subject area. We might be able to move through the four stages within a single lesson, or it may be an expanded process that is organized across a week’s worth of lesson plans. Consider these two examples:
45-minute Lesson Plan Structure
5 minutes | Opening warm up: Inquiry question
10 minutes | I do, you watch: Mini-lesson modeling
10 minutes | I do, you help: Stop and jot, turn and talk reflection on the model
15 minutes | You do, I help: Small group practice
5 minutes | You do, I watch: Closing summary formative assessment
Week-long Lesson Structure
Monday | I do, you watch: Introduction, modeling, and reflection
Tuesday | I do, you help: Small group discussion and practice
Wednesday | You do, I help: Small group practice and connections, part 1
Thursday | You do, I help: Small group practice and connections, part 2
Friday | You do, I watch: Independent practice and formative assessment
The process of instruction and assessment is complex, especially when we’re trying to use data to inform instruction and support students who’ve struggled in the past. We want to be mindful to keep forward momentum toward rigorous learning goals while developing a clear path forward for students who begin at every level.
Three entry points for designing project-based, student-centered instruction.
Elementary & Project-Based Learning Specialist
With the amount of interruptions and disruptions to learning over the last few years, many schools and teachers are faced with the reality that their curricula and instruction may no longer be relevant or appropriate, given all of the learning that’s been missed. As a result, teachers are wondering how to best revive their curricula to make it more reflective and responsive to their students’ needs. Furthermore, they are concerned with how to best promote and maintain engagement of their students, and incorporate fun into their learning.
Project-based learning can be a powerful solution. Projects promote high levels of student engagement while also supporting the acquisition of academic skills and content knowledge, and also real-world, 21st century capacities and characteristics, including: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and caring. Project-based learning puts students at the center, and are often inspired by real-world, community-based issues that matter to students, providing safe spaces for them to engage in meaningful reflection, and share their unique perspectives with the world.
How can we make our instruction more project-based? Where do we start? Many teachers I work with are eager and excited to transition to project-based learning, but struggle with knowing how to begin. Their excitement is often met with fear and apprehension as they feel bound to a certain curricula or scope and sequence. Use the three considerations below to imagine the first steps you might take in creating more student-centered, project-based instruction.
Consider: Student voice and choice
One of the core principles of project-based learning is student choice. As teachers, we want to be thinking about where and how students can make decisions about their own learning. But this doesn’t have to be overwhelming — we can offer students choice within manageable parameters.
A simple starting point can be to think about choice when it comes to topics, texts, or tasks. For example, if we know that students need to write a persuasive essay as one of our grade level or content area requirements, allow them choice in the topic they write about, or the texts they read as part of the process. Or, if we know that students need to read a certain text as part of a course, then allow them choice when it comes to the task of how they will share their learning (e.g. presentation, podcast, etc.).
Consider: An authentic audience
Another core principle of project-based learning is an authentic audience. Traditionally, the audience for student learning is the teacher, or maybe their peers. But how can we challenge this tradition and provide students with opportunities to write for a more real-world audience?
The ability to communicate with specific audiences is an incredibly important skill, and something that will serve them beyond the classroom. When it comes to identifying an audience, we can use questions such as: “Who would benefit most from learning about this topic or reading this work?”
Identifying an audience from the start, prior to launching into a unit, can support students in writing with this audience in mind, which should inform their tone, their language, and their vocabulary. But it doesn’t stop there — think about how your students can authentically connect with their audience, whether it’s through inviting them to a reading or celebration, posting their writing online, or even sending representations of their work in the mail.
Consider: A larger purpose
In line with thinking about an authentic audience, is connecting student efforts to a larger purpose. Most often, the purpose of student work is for a grade, or to pass a class. Projects, in contrast, have a deeper purpose that connects to the world outside the classroom, which can make them more meaningful and enjoyable for students.
Whereas we might talk about the traditional purposes of student work as being to persuade, entertain or teach, identifying a more specific purpose can strengthen students' skills as writers and communicators. For example, a purpose could be to call someone to action to resolve a community issue, to share advice, or to challenge perspectives. Being more specific and deliberate with the purpose can help inform and inspire how students understand their efforts.
These three considerations reflect just some of the essential principles of project-based learning, and are a great place to start if you’re looking for manageable entry points to this type of work. These project elements can serve to inform extensions and/or revisions that you make to existing curricula, without it feeling overwhelming or impossible, and most importantly, help revive your curricula to make it more student-centered and student-driven.
Make sense of your thinking as you articulate the what, why, and how of your lessons.
G. FAITH LITTLE
21st Century Learning & SEL Specialist
My most common resistance and response, when prompted by our director to articulate my next workshop plan in one of our templates is, “We don’t have time for that. I need to get in there and get the work done. I don't have time to also articulate what the work is going to be.” After I express my frustration with a lack of time, I take a breath and sit down with my thoughts, our goals, and the template.
Thankfully, the template has been through our usual practice of draft, revision, practice, and more revision, so that I’m working with a helpful, useful, and practical tool. As I move through prompts like driving questions, objectives, skills, activity, assessment, and resources, I see what’s in my head come together on the screen. By the time I’m done, I’ve experienced the magic of a pre-planning template. I’ve actually done all the work of thinking through what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, what skills I need to teach, and how I will confirm what students know and can do throughout the workshop.
Not enough time to plan? I actually don’t have enough time NOT to plan!
As it turns out, articulating my plan supports me in grounding the lesson in its larger context and provides a way to make my thinking visible to my students, my colleagues, and my supervisor. Bonus: I won’t need to reinvent an agenda the next time this workshop rolls around. I have a lesson plan I can reuse and customize going forward.
Our lesson planning resource supports teachers like you in experiencing this same process — moving your thinking from inside your head out into the world, and considering all of the pieces of a lesson, because the template reminds you with supportive prompts. You can leave yourself room to think more deeply about teaching and learning by relying on our preset categories to pull you through your planning time.
It’s important to be confident and clear about your plans, and articulating your thinking is an excellent way to get there. This is what will allow you to be more flexible, because you’ve got a plan from which to work. You know what’s essential and what might be able to shift when unexpected changes occur in your classroom, as they so often do!
You can use this resource as a tool for yourself as we teach, your students as they engage in the work, and your colleagues as you offer each other formal or informal coaching in this challenging and rewarding world of teaching.
How do we decide which words to teach our students?
Literacy & Special Education Specialist
In Including All Learners, a course I co-teach with my colleague Jacqui Stolzer, we design our content based on the questions we wonder about as teachers. One that comes up often is: How do we decide which words to teach our students? Asking this question challenges us to think about how to focus our instructional time, and nudges us to be more purposeful in designing our curriculum.
Understanding tiered vocabulary
One of the ways we decide which words to teach is by using the tiered vocabulary concept developed by Dr. Isabel Beck. Beck thinks of vocabulary words as belonging to one of three categories:
While it is interesting to group words into these three categories, how does this practice impact our instructional decisions?
Narrowing your focus
When designing lessons and prioritizing instructional time, it may be helpful to consider which tiers and key terms are worthy of classroom instruction.
As we can see above, Tier 3 words are easy to identify; these are the words that we need to teach in order for students to understand a particular concept. For example, in an ecosystem unit of a Living Environment course, words such as “abiotic” and “biotic” are Tier 3 words that are necessary terms in the unit; they are the specific words used to identify non-living or living parts of an ecosystem. In a sense, Tier 3 words are easy to determine in a curriculum because they are entwined with concepts in a particular unit.
Tier 2 words, however, are often not taught explicitly since the assumption is that students already know what they mean. It’s the Tier 2 words that need extra attention in our classrooms. These are the words to spend time teaching and modeling for your students. What this looks like will vary depending on your grade level and content area.
Modeling for your students
Consider a Tier 2 word such as analyze. Most students are familiar with that word by the time they reach middle school, but what does it really look like in math or science or English?
When students are asked to analyze a text, it’s helpful for teachers to model this work, demonstrating the pieces of a text analysis and sharing the tools students need to analyze a text on their own. Think about all the steps that are imperative for analyzing a text. If I were modeling how to analyze a passage, I might:
Analysis can change shape depending on the class — in science, analyzing lab data might look different from analyzing a passage in English. But in both cases, dedicating instructional time to demonstration of the term will help strengthen students’ skills, giving students access to academic thinking and language.
Tiered vocabulary can help you classify key terms for your grade level and content area, and as a result, make instructional decisions that hone in on teaching new or unfamiliar words for your students. Finding a balance between content-specific, Tier 3 words and more general academic terms like those in Tier 2 can help narrow your focus and increase student comfort with the words they encounter in your classroom.