3 (+1) Grouping Strategies to Avoid Creating Bullies (pt 2)

A week or so ago, I published a post outlining how a very popular grouping strategy many (most?) teachers use creates bullies. Check it out here. I got a lot of love and agreement in the comments and, separately, on social media. And luckily, I got some who didn’t necessarily agree. *whew* I sure don’t want to live inside my own echo-chamber. And some are hungry for other strategies that we might use instead of this bully-creator.

Hey Ginger, don’t just send out pot-shots from on-high. If you’re gonna shoot holes in the hull of our current approach, then at least send us a dad-gummed lifeboat!

Absolutely! We’re going to look at 3 highly-effective strategies for grouping kids in the PBL classroom (actually, any classroom), and I’ll also outline one more that I’ve found could possibly be the very best strategy for grouping kids, but it has a caveat added. This last +1 strategy could very likely get you fired.Groups in PBL classroom

There are a couple of important points I feel should accompany this post as well:

  1. With group work, I try hard to help kids connect with others to help strengthen the classroom and the school. But in order to truly connect, we have to be ourselves, ergo, it needs to be a safe environment. We’ve got to be ok with showing our weird side to others. Because, let’s face it, many kids are already self-conscious and feel “weird.” And they try hard to hide that. But to me, weird actually means unique. So I hit reality face-on, repeating “Everybody is somebody else’s weirdo. So let’s get over it and move on. Oh? You thought you were normal? How weird is that?!” Kids laugh and we do move on. We embrace and celebrate our work while focusing on strengths were kids gain confidence and trust in the learning process. And we begin to not only recognize that we’re all unique, we actually begin to value it. And that’s a good thing. “Weird” is good in a safe environment, especially when we call out that 800 lb gorilla of weirdness that every single one of us is trying to hide.
  2. While I am trying to build community, not all students need to work in groups. Remember the value of uniqueness? Yeah, that applies to not having to work in groups all the time. But sometimes they do need others’ help because the work can be awfully tough out there on our own.Screen Shot 2013-09-26 at 12.13.28 PM

So now it’s on to the 3 (+1) strategies!

Strategy 1 — Ability grouping

To combat the high/medium/low ability group strategy that creates bullies (illustrated over here — seriously, go read it if you haven’t) one of the most effective ways to group kids is by ability. In this fashion, each learner is able to have specific interventions and instructional strategies laser-pinpointed and tailored to the needs of that group. I can be a much more effective teacher in meeting kids needs. And it addresses the Shelly/Ginger issue in the part 1 post.

But to leave the kids in only this type of grouping is wrong. We’d create the “haves” vs “the have-nots” and that’s no community-builder. At all. No, we need to find ways to get the kids to be heterogeneously grouped, but with a purpose beyond simply high/medium/low.

Strategy 2 — Interest grouping

How can we get our students together in mixed-ability groups? Group them based on interests. I’ll wager to say there are only a handful of topics that will engage every single learner in your classroom:

At the middle/high school levels, consider, cars, music, sports, women’s issues, social justice, wars/weaponry, fashion. That list has something on there to hook nearly every single learner in our classroom.
At the elementary level, consider animals, space, dinosaurs, cars, fashion, horses, insects, reptiles, music, dance, sports.

When we hook our content into topics of interest, kids come to their interest groups with confidence, excitement, and are willing to get involved and share. My favorite part is that most likely, all kids know things inside their areas of interest. Soon, kid(s) are seeing their peers in a new light! The kids that may otherwise be labeled as “not very bright” or are too “unique” are contributing value to the community on a near-equal level as their peers. This is definitely good for all!

Strategy 3 — Readiness grouping

This is a hybrid modification of ability grouping. The reality is that some kids come to us knowing a LOT about things that we’d never expect. I’ve had kids who might not be labeled as super-strong learners come to my WW1/WW2 classes knowing a TON of information due to video games they were playing. What shall I do, ignore that? Nope! I plop those kiddos right into the group of kids who learn quickly. Again, we’re seeing each other’s strengths and uniqueness in a very positive and useful light. And confidence continues to grow. Let’s do it!

Some of you might be catching on. Really, this is Differentiated Instruction 101. This is not ground-breaking.

…and now for the (+1) strategy that I recommend you NOT use. The one that will get you fired:

(+1) Strategy for grouping

FIRST: I do not recommend you use this strategy. Ever. Very few school environments are able to have such a strong relationship with parents and staff to sustain the bigger picture of this strategy. And if you’re a lone teacher, you might get fired, so don’t send anyone to me, saying I said you should do this. I don’t.

That being said, I had amazing success with this strategy with my students. Like medicine, though, we used it sparingly. And we kept our parents in the loop every single step of the way. If there was a concern, we dealt with it individually.

At the beginning of each year of our 1:1 laptop, Project-Based Learning school, I told the students that we were going to work in groups <insert audible collective groan> and that I would be watching them to see who were good group workers and who were bad group workers. That I would soon be putting good group workers with other good group workers <insert audible ‘yes’ from some kids and some very wide, shifty eyes from others>. Right there, they self-identified which type of group worker they were for me, but I told them they would have many chances to show me they had earned the right to be in the “good group worker” group. And we began the year working in interest groups and random groups (since I didn’t know them yet). I began to observe who worked well in groups and who were used to waiting for others to do all the work.

Soon, about 2 months into the year, it was time. We’d have a quick, 2-day project with low academic stakes (because this exercise wasn’t about academics, but rather social learning) coming up and I’d tell them I was grouping them into the way I promised: good group workers and bad group workers. When the work began, the good group workers were off like a shot, happy, relieved, and ZOOMING! The bad group workers sat and looked at each other, wondering which one was going to do the work. I positioned myself near that group, because after all, it’s not Lord of the Flies over here! I’ve got to be there to support and re-direct them as they learn how to do the right thing. There would be nothing and no one behind which to hide for these kiddos.

And if I’d done my job as a teacher, laying out an exciting, tasty, and high-interest project, eventually some could no longer resist, and would rise up and work. YES!! I call that a win! Love was showered all around on those kids and gentle support/pressure was still applied on those who’d not yet learned to take the steps forward.

I’d do this type of grouping 2-3 times a year, maximum. It was enough of a wake-up call to get kids to really do some metacognitive reflection about their own approaches and contributions to group work. And eventually, all my kids knew what it took to be good group workers. For some, it took a couple years to unlearn previously ingrained poor behavior. It’s ok. I’m old. I have patience. They’ll get there.

So why do I say this strategy will get you fired?

Because what kids hear isn’t “good group workers” and “bad group workers.”


They hear “good kid” and “bad kid” even though I’d never said that.

You see why this can only be done in a loving, trusting environment that has a special (some might say “unique”) communication style with parents? There are schools out there like this. You all might consider it. You might not.

I’d say a typical K12 district had better never consider it, even if I do think it’s THE most effective way I’ve ever grouped kids to create true learners.

Thanks for reading this long post to the end. I’m looking forward to hearing from those of you who have successfully used these strategies before and for those who might still be renting the idea (not yet bought-in).

Somewhere, back in my archives, I have a post about utilizing contracts for group work. I’ll try to dig that out and dust it off.

Incidentally, ability grouping, aka “cluster grouping,” is NOT the same as “tracking.” Tracking is where we put kids into those leveled groups and never take them out, regardless of the subject or their advancement in school. That’s wrong.

Let’s re-think group work. This is an AWESOME post from a former student of mine who dropped out of school at age 16 to spend her days actually learning. And I could not be more proud of her for doing so and for being who she is today. Group Projects = Fail She’s pretty critical of using groups at all. I submit it for your own pondering.

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Written by GingerLewman

  1. “If you want to have a great lab partner, be a great lab partner,” has worked in my lab for a few decades now.

    • Not bad advice for them to consider. Kinda like The Golden Rule of schoolwork.

  2. […] and their interest in the topic (see my passionate posts about grouping here, here, and here, and in that order). Once the kids have more experience with being PBL learners, they can pick […]

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