Group Work: Getting into Formation

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 service learning.

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 involving rulers?

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 learning activities.

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