Differentiating your instruction through strategic and flexible grouping.
From the one room schoolhouse to the giant lecture hall, the image we often conjure of teaching is of the sage on the stage, the professor imparting wisdom on the entire student body who are hanging on our every word. But the reality is that whole class instruction is rarely effective as a meaningful and sustainable learning experience. Students’ academic knowledge and skills grow more when they’re personally engaged in a task or challenge that meets their learning needs, supports their learning differences, and is customized to help them get to their next step.
Educators can often become overwhelmed with the prospect of differentiating instruction for every single student in the classroom, and often feel frustrated having to design 30 different lesson plans. The good news is that while students do need instruction to be personalized to meet their needs, many of their needs are similar. As educators, we want to better recognize our students’ academic, social, emotional, and skill-based needs and strategically match them with other students in the class.
There’s a big difference between working in a group, and working with a group. In an effort to increase group work and collaboration, we will sometimes push desks together so students are sitting in a group, and then give them permission to talk to their groups while completing an individual task. While this is community-oriented, we can differentiate it from working with a group on a shared task.
Strategic grouping is a key feature in teaching effective collaboration skills, and in streamlining instruction to meet the needs of our diverse learners. Strategic — or purposeful — groups demonstrate that we’ve put some time, energy, and thought into who students should work with. We can consider factors like literacy or numeracy performance, communication styles (introvert/extrovert), skills and talents (artists, writers, organizers), and even gender considerations for creating groups that are similar or mixed.
One of the reasons strategic grouping is so difficult is because it requires us to know our learning outcomes, and to develop a strategy about the best ways to achieve this outcome. If I’m working on a unit where students will need to write an essay from a text they’ve read, I have to determine:
We can only answer these questions in the context of the class, the unit, and the end goal of the assessment.
Flexible grouping: number, color, shape
One of the most effective ways to establish strategic groups is to create groups that are flexible.
Developing strategic groups requires time and effort! And once groups are established and the students begin their work, it doesn’t mean that it will feel immediately successful. Just like any teamwork approach, groups take time to develop relationships, build trust, and establish healthy and productive routines. When groups change rapidly, even groups that are strategic, it makes it difficult to see the return on our investment. That’s why establishing strategic (purposeful to the context and task) and flexible groups can be a major win.
One easy approach to flexible grouping is to design Number, Color, Shape groups. With a little bit of planning, we can set up three types of group structures at once.
To establish flexible groups, consider three types of groups that need to be made:
Having students work in leveled pairs is an effective way to differentiate. By working with a partner, students can tackle more complex tasks, collaborate with a peer, or edit and revise their thinking as they complete an assignment. Students will also be able to develop more personal connections, which keeps them engaged and interested.
To set up numbered pairs, look at a class list and divide the total number of students in half. 30 students = 15 pairs. Then, begin matching students based on data — performance, reading levels, and personality can all be helpful data points to make matches. Once every student is in a pair, introduce the learning pairs by passing out numbered cards and invite students to find their match. It may be helpful to place numbers around the room so students know where to find their match, or create a class challenge to find partners without speaking.
Once established, keep these numbered pairs for an extended period of time. Consider 4 - 6 weeks for pairs, given that it will take a few work periods before students feel comfortable, and once the pairs are working, making changes to the partnerships can derail the momentum. If some pairs don’t work out as planned, make specific changes in those situations.
After students spend time working in pairs, their collaboration and communication skills will improve over time with their partners. We can take our differentiation to the next level by joining the numbered pairs into small groups of 4-5 students with similar ability levels.
Maybe you’ll combine groups 3 & 8 to create a square group, and groups 2 & 9 to become a circle group. Same shape groups will create leveled groupings that allow us to differentiate topics, products, processes, and text levels by assigning a specific task to each group based on their Zone of Proximal Development.
If we know that groups 3 & 8 are composed of students who are reading 2-3 grade levels below expectations, we can assign the square group a text that’s at their instructional reading level and have them complete the same critical thinking task that the other groups are assigned. If we know that groups 2 & 9 are composed of students who are reading at or above grade level, we can assign them a more challenging text on the same topic, and have them complete the same critical thinking task that the other groups are working on.
Same shape groups work well because after their discussion and group work, the class can come together to discuss the larger topic, without limiting the contributions of students with below-grade level reading skills.
Many — but not all! — learning goals are best accomplished by having students work in groups with peers on similar levels. When students only ever see examples of tasks and work products that reflect the same thing they would produce, they don’t have an opportunity to visualize how they can expand their thinking, reading, writing, or reasoning skills. By working with students in mixed ability (heterogeneous) groups, students of all different levels can participate in a jigsaw discussion or group projects. Mixed groups allow students to learn from one another, and play an individual role towards a shared goal.
We can create Color Groups using our Numbered Pairs and Same Shape groups as a starting point! Color Groups will be strategic, data-informed heterogeneous groups that can meet together consistently through a unit or term. To create the Color Groups, review the students in each Shape Group and begin distributing them evenly into Color Groups.
Example: We can take one student from the square group, one from the circle group, one from the diamonds, and one from the hearts, and place them into the Purple Group. Because we’re mixing and matching from the Same Shape groups, we’re guaranteed a mix of performance abilities in the Color Blend Groups.
Bringing it all together
Strategic grouping requires data-informed decision-making to create flexible groups of students who work collaboratively for a specific purpose.
By designing these three sets of groups at one time, you can maximize your planning and minimize chaos! No more numbering off from 1 - 4 around the room. No more wandering around to find a partner. No more kids sitting in the back because they don’t have a group. If each student received a card on color cardstock, with a printed number, cut out in a specific shape, they could receive multiple group assignments within seconds. And after each grouping has been established, they’ll begin to learn how to work together for a purpose in each grouping they experience.
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