Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Should I Group?

In the article To group, or not to group from Learn Me Good, Mister Teacher talks about a session that he attended and says,

“The speaker was obviously against ability grouping. He said that in the past, some people have put the high kids together in one class and the lower kids together in another class. In this situation, the low kids tend to learn a lot and the high kids learn a lot, but the gap between their knowledge grows even wider. Whereas in a mixed-ability group, the high kids will pull the lower kids up, and so the knowledge gap is decreased.”

This made me think about grouping and whether I should group or not. I think there are times grouping is good and sometimes it isn’t appropriate. As a teacher, I need to look at what the objective of my lesson is and how do I plan to achieve it. If grouping is the best way to do that, then that is the way I need to go. I do not believe that one size fits all and just because I group for this lesson, doesn’t mean it should be done for all lessons.

In project based learning, the group can be a mixed ability group so that each person can use their strengths to help the whole group. This is a great example of a real life situation because many times when I have to work on a project, I am not aware of the abilities of each person until we start to work together. Each person has something to contribute and because of our different strengths, it is more likely that we will be successful in completing a project. Many employers look for employees who can work on a project with others and can contribute differently to the group.

Yet, as a teacher, I need to help develop my student’s strengths and sometimes it is necessary to put them in a group of same abilities. If I am going to a class to learn a new skill, I do not want to waste time sitting there and listening to the basics being taught if I already know the basics. This applies to my students too and they do not want to waste time hearing about something they already know how to do. The same applies if I overwhelm the students who do not know the basics and give up before they ever get started. This only invites behavior problems and lack of motivation to try to learn a new skill. By grouping them according to same abilities, I am able to challenge the students to a point where they won’t be overwhelmed with frustration.

I think it is also important to talk about this with students. They are aware from an early age about grouping whether you call it low, middle, high or red, blue, and green groups. They know which students struggle and which ones excel. Again, that is real life and nothing we can do will ever insulate them from that. Instead, we need to help them understand that our differences are what help us be successful in life. One student may struggle with one skill but excel in others. As a teacher, they assume that I am brilliant (not that I would ever try to convince them otherwise!) and that I can do anything. Yet, I explain to them that I cannot fix my car if it breaks or repair my roof or fix plumbing problems. Maybe one day, one of my students will be doing that for me. Each of us needs to build on our strengths and encourage others to do the same. Same ability grouping should not be looked down upon but seen as necessary sometimes to build strengths for times when we are in mixed ability groups.

I am interested in knowing how you feel about grouping? Which do you use and why? Hopefully sharing our ideas will help make our students more successful in the classroom.

Original image: 'Serious Face' by: Peter Caspiolay


MrsE said...

I was schooled in a system that used the lock-step group approach and that was the method I was taught when I trained to be a teacher. It makes me shudder now.

Today I feel most comfortable when I am learning with my students. I guess I would call it the 'no one knows everything' approach. The teacher assumes the role of the more experienced guide and works with the students to help them find their own learning style and pursue interests and learn skills to enable them as learners.

I agree that grouping together when learning or problem solving can be a powerful learning tool. The role of teacher, however, is one that can be assumed by any member of the group. Students and their teacher can ask each other questions like:
How did you do that? How did you arrive at that conclusion? What about looking at the problem from this angle?
When students are trained to ask questions and solve problems then they advance their own learning regardless of the group they are in. When they learn to share and collaborate they are learning valuable workplace skills.

Teachers who have the ability to model that questioning/sharing/collaborating behavior are preparing their students for a workplace where team skills and thinking are valued.

Ric Murry said...

I think teachers are fooling themselves if they think "higher level" students will bring up the "lower level" students to reduce a gap between them.

I also believe this is an issue than is under-discussed, under-debated, and under-understood (is that a word?).

More detail at my blog.

I am also entered the conversation at Learn Me Good.

Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

Tina aka Snupnjake said...

I have to agree with Ric and his statement about higher ability students bringing up lower ability students. In real terms that doesn't happen. As a student who was high ability, it was incredibly frustrating for me to be with those of lower ability, and for fear of my grades, I landed up doing all the work. As an instructor, I see the same thing happening.

Also, if you are supposed to use differentiated instruction, does ability grouping even matter because every student will be doing something different?

loonyhiker said...

@MrsE I love learning new things and modeling this learning for my students. They are amused that I don't know everything! LOL

loonyhiker said...

@Ric Murry I really enjoyed your post! And I totally agree with you that fair does not mean equal. We face that wrong assumption a lot in special ed when dealing with acommodations. Thanks for your comments!

loonyhiker said...

@snupnjake I agree. If we are doing differentiated instruction, grouping should not play a big part. Unfortunately most teachers at this time do not use differentiated instruction. If we could only get them to jump on board...

SWalsh said...

I agree that there are situations in the classroom where ability grouping is beneficial and there are times when it is more of a disadvantage for all students. Much about teaching and education is focused on establishing an even-playing field. As teachers, we know that this isn’t necessarily possible because every student has a different background with various experiences; we are people after all, not robots. What we can do is establish a classroom environment in which students are comfortable sharing their strengths and weaknesses.
I like your perspective on actually discussing students’ experiences with ability grouping, because as you stated, they are absolutely aware that these groups exist. Recognizing the differences among our students isn’t wrong as long as it is handled in a way that allows everyone to embrace these differences and see them in a more positive light. Everyone, including teachers, has their own strengths and weaknesses and as a teacher and role model, it should be our responsibility to share these with our students. When students are aware that a teacher is comfortable with his/her own weaknesses, they can begin to feel at ease with theirs and perhaps focus on developing their individual strengths. In the past I have tried to take on the all-knowing teacher role, but I see now how it would be more beneficial for my students to see that where I am weak, they may be strong, and can therefore contribute to the learning environment.

loonyhiker said...

@SWalsh Thank you so much for your comments. I think when we portray an "all knowing" persona to our students, we are setting them up for failure. We are modeling behavior for them that they can not match. By letting them know what we are weak in and then how we handle these weaknesses, seems to be more effective, I think.