Middle grades teachers whose students are the most
engaged in learning and the least disruptive are the
teachers who make the most of student grouping.
The most effective teachers in our building have four
group default settings that they use continually. Their
students know each formation by name and can fall into
each at a minute’s notice. If you’ve been teaching for a
couple of years, you’re probably using at least three of these
configurations, but to improve your instruction, you should
master all four.
1. All Together Now
From preschool through graduate school, whole-group
is still the dominant grouping in education. Although
whole-group instruction gets a bad rap, many of the same
professors and principals who argue against it are sure to
use it. Why? Because nothing is more efficient. Nothing
gets more information out faster and to more students
than a lecture.
The lecture brings out the best in some teachers and
allows them to convey their enthusiasm for the content.
The lecture can also build community—think political rally
or church service. However, as with the other groupings, it
should be used consciously and conscientiously and as part
of a balanced diet of instructional strategies.
2. Four on the Floor
Collaborative learning puts students at the center of the
action, prompting higher levels of student engagement.
It allows teachers to differentiate for their students’ diverse
interests and abilities; it makes learning discursive and
social; and it lends itself to project-based instruction and
One of the most common and versatile collaborative
learning formations is the team of four.
In science classes where instruction is rooted in inquiry
and exploration, the group might conduct an investigation
with one student reading directions, one recording
observations, one managing materials, and one reporting
back to the class.
In social studies and language classes, groups can act
out skits. In reading classes that use reciprocal teaching for
discussion, each student might be assigned to a different
role: summarizer, questioner, clarifier, and predictor, as
Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher describe in their February
2012 Principal Leadership article, “Reading in Every
Classroom, Every Day.”
Roles need not be assigned; a team can be given four
tasks and members allowed to determine for themselves
who will do what. Or, a team can be given a single goal and
allowed to decide how to get there.
Even more loosely, group members can travel together
through a series of stations or centers, each student doing
her own work yet helping the other group members and
getting help from them.
3. Just the Two of Us
The whole-group formation tends to focus on the
dissemination of information; teams and partners focus
on creative and critical thinking skills. When just two people
are talking, no one is off the hook. Someone is talking and
someone is listening.
In our building, teachers frequently tell their students
to “turn and talk.” The key is that the teachers must ask
students to talk about the right kinds of questions: not
when or where the battle was fought but how the army
supplied its soldiers or why so many deserted.
In partner reading, two students are seated next to
each other but facing in opposite directions. They sit
shoulder to shoulder. One student reads just loud enough
that only the partner can hear. The other student then
summarizes or retells what she just heard. When the
partners are satisfied with the retelling, they exchange
roles and continue reading.
4. Eight Is Enough
If this article had been arranged from the largest group to
the smallest, this particular formation might have come
second, but since the majority of the students in this model
work independently, there is rationale for listing it last.
This is the hardest to master and the least likely to be
implemented, especially by teachers who work in secondary
education and without the assistance of other adults in their
classroom. Just as the lecture is a tool for class control, the
small group is the most likely to cause chaos.
Let’s look at how it works in a guided math class. The
teacher has formed three or four groups according to
student needs or abilities; she works with these groups
of six or eight students at a single table while the rest
of the class moves through stations. In this scenario,
grouping meets data. Which students are struggling with
conversions? Which students missed all these questions
In a guided reading class, groups might be formed
around novels. While the rest of the class reads silently,
the teacher carries on a literature circle with the six or eight
kids who are reading the same book; tomorrow she will
ask similar questions of students reading a different book.
How to Do It
It takes time to teach these groupings, but after students
get the hang of it, they become so routine that students
can snap into them quickly. Establishing these groupings
in September and October will pay dividends in January
and April as students learn to work together on meaningful
Part of the pitch for ensuring students work together is
that collaboration is an essential part of the world of work.
Why? Because group work has a way of bringing out the
best in all of us.
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2012