Your Favorite Grouping Strategy Creates Bullies

In my PBL workshops, I’m often asked to share my favorite grouping strategies based on my 7 years of experience with Project Based Learning. It seems that grouping is a universal problem in any classroom, where, once groups are formed, one kid does all the work for him/herself while others are content to do anything but work.

Hangover Group Work Meme

Hangover Group Work Meme

As teachers, how do we combat that?

One strategy often used is to assign clear roles and responsibilities for each student to ensure that the work is fair and that each is doing her own part, right? Another might even be to ask students to evaluate and assign points to other group members, so each will be held accountable for working.

I wonder, though, if that truly solves the problem? And I also wonder if that level of intervention belongs in a PBL environment where we’re trying to get kids, who are fully capable of doing so, to decide to create roles for themselves (I’m thinking upper elementary through high school here).

Also, I notice that those strategies attempt to only address behavior issues. What are we doing for academic equity? How are we ensuring that each kid is learning all we expect her to?

I don’t know about you, but I was taught in college (19 years ago) that creating work groups with a HIGH, a MEDIUM, and a LOW student in each was the right and the fair thing to do. The idea is that the HIGH ability student can (re)teach and guide the lower-ability student, right? I see many teachers currently doing this. And I see that a very famous program also is pushing the same thing today.

But I’m going to tell you that there’s no faster way to tear your classroom culture apart than to group High/Medium/Low students together. Simply, I believe it’s wrong and quite the opposite of equitable.

And I’ll tell you why…

So I admit that I’m not really the most physically fit person in the world…stick with me on this story…
I have a teacher-friend we’ll call Shelly (not her real name). Shelly is a good person and she’s a truly good friend. And she’s very, very physically fit. She loves the gym and fitness. So it makes sense for me to go to her for help in getting more fit, right? Shelly agrees to help me and we set a date to meet at the gym.

my friend, Shelly

my friend, Shelly

The day we meet up, Shelly is ready to go! I’m hesitant, but know this is the right thing to do. We start off with, according to Shelly, some “light aerobic” warm ups. Pretty soon it’s obvious that “light aerobic” to me and “light aerobic” to Shelly is not the same thing at all. I’m already huffing and puffing 10 minutes in and have worked up more than just a light bead of sweat on my upper lip. Oh, who’m I kidding? I’m already sweating through my shirt.

And I look over at Shelly. She smiles at me, continuing her story about … I don’t even remember what. I do remember noting that she’s talking easily and not sweating at all. She even has lung power to laugh and to offer words of encouragement for me. Yay.

So it goes on.

Throughout the entire hour, Shelly is being supportive and I’m trying to hold my breath and my sweat, embarrassed by how terribly out of shape I am. Looking at my friend, I’m starting to hate on her. And I’m starting to hate my time at the gym, realizing this whole thing may have been a mistake. Shelly’s still smiling and not even breaking stride in her peppy and perky breathing. And there’s not one piece of sweat anywhere on her! Did I see her just send an empathetic smile at me during the final push? Ugh. That’s all I need. Pity.

I hate her.

Ah, that’s not true. If I didn’t like her, I’d punch her. But I am thinking about it. It’s just a good thing she’s nice.

At the end of the workout, we walk out to the parking lot. I get in my car, still breathing and still damp (dripping). Shelly offers still more words of encouragement and tells me she’ll text me to set up our next exercise date. I say yeah, trying to hide my embarrassment and my hatred for her perkiness. I drive away. Shelly smiles and waves, watching me go, then goes back into the gym to get her own workout.

See, she didn’t gain any personal benefit from our workout together. She’s just my cheerleader and I hate her for it.

You see, I think that story of Shelly and me illustrates precisely the physical manifestation of what we do to kids academically. We create haters in our classrooms by putting High with Low. We don’t mean to, but it happens every single time.

Luckily for me, Shelly is encouraging and friendly. What if she wasn’t? How vulnerable am I then? How likely is it that I’ll ever want to work hard with her?

And what if I wasn’t nice? What’s the dynamic now if I’m a kid who is ready to persecute Shelly for being a know-it-all as my own defense mechanism?

You see, I think that often, High/Medium/Low ability groupings tear our classroom dynamics apart more than we

"Miss BossyPants" and "The Log"

“Miss BossyPants” &
“The Log”

know. And I think we create “Miss Bossy-pants” and “The Log” kids and then WE blame THEM for being that way, when we set up the situation for them to be put into those roles!

It hurts my heart.

But I do have ideas for how we can move forward. Where Shelly can get an appropriate workout and how I can as well.

Because each kid deserves to be:

  1. taught by a highly-qualified teacher and not another student, and
  2. to be appropriately challenged at their own levels of readiness.

My next post will share my 3+1 strategies for grouping kids for a PBL classroom. But until then, what would you do for Shelly? For Ginger?

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Written by GingerLewman

  1. o’ my gosh…I do this but never admit to it!

    Now if you do this in groups…why not classes.

    When the group work is over, it’s time to present…one group goes up with a sculpture of David, and the other with an ash tray made from bottle caps.

    My classroom community took a huge hit the year we went to heterogeneous groups. Not groups with “differences in learn styles blah blah blah…” I mean kids were on different learning planets.

    • I love how you’re always a step ahead Paul. Yes, why not do this with classes?

      And who cares about the final product? Does it represent the learning that was done? Or are we simply focused on comparing oranges to apples and blaming one for not being the other?

  2. There are many ‘abilities’ in which to group students. Reading ability, computation ability, problem-solving ability, creativity… You get the point! I found that when I’d draw a picture on the board as an example my students would try to recreate that picture exactly as I created it. That caused more problems than I could have imagined so I quit with the demos and started giving fewer instructions allowing my students to show me their interpretation of what they heard me say. That was powerful learning on my part!
    If Shelly and Ginger had asked me to facilitate their exercise experience I would have had them develop a trusting relationship where Ginger would feel comfortable in stating her issues and Shelly would feel comfortable in adjusting her delivery of instruction to meet Ginger’s needs. When we are in trusting relationships we handle our frustrations in a more positive, learning way rather than a negative, hurtful way.

    • Excellent response! I agree about all different categories of abilities. I also appreciate the way you would facilitate Shelly’s and Ginger’s interactions.

      Only one question:
      If the goal is to have a good workout (which would have the academic equivalent of learning content), where is Shelly’s opportunity to be challenged and learn if she’s busy teaching Ginger?
      Ginger learns a lot, but Shelly … ?
      Gets to do more work after teaching Ginger?

      • Such a good article, Ginger. And in talking to gifted students they remind me that some are not particularly social & don’t enjoy leadership or taking the “teacher” role. Others tell me they don’t know where to begin to help those less capable (remember, they’re not trained in learning styles, remediation, etc.). Gifted kids would tell you that they are not inspired by having to carry everyone when they’re put as the “smart” person in the group for everyone else to defer to. We rob the others in the group of the opportunity to step into leadership and showcase their abilities when they’re paired with a gifted kid they know they can never top. And no one wants to “get” to do more work with no extra reward just because they can.

      • I think the goal of each person’s hour is different. Shelly’s goal is to learn how to be an excellent teacher and coach. Her outcome is to gain intrinsic satisfaction that she has helped another person. She has learned tolerance and self-confidence. She has benefited socially and emotionally. Lessons like this are akin to what the Dalhai Lama teaches. Ginger’s goal is to get the workout. I believe that both learned equally.

        • Elly, I agree with you if the situation is only about fitness and Shelly volunteers to help out. But let’s consider that the purpose of the story is to directly illustrate a tie between this story and the classroom. Most of the time, in the classroom, it’s not our purpose to train our high-ability kids to be teachers or coaches.

          Imagine if Shelly and Ginger were paired in a math class and Shelly is good in Math while Ginger struggles. Pairing them would very likely frustrate Ginger, even if they are good friends and Shelly is nice. It puts her into a subservient role to another student in the best of classroom environments. In the worst, it makes her a target for ridicule.

          And the reality is that in a teacher role, Shelly’s time in class would be spent going over work she already knows. When is it that Shelly gets to learn something new? At home on her own time? That’s hardly fair to her (or her family time).

          I believe every single kid deserves to learn something new every single day. And they both deserve to be taught by a highly qualified teacher.

          While in some instances, Shelly and Ginger might enjoy working together, the truth is that not all Shelly’s enjoy being surrogate teachers and not all Ginger’s enjoy being put in that vulnerable position.

          My next post will outline 3 (plus one) ways we can more effectively and purposefully group our kiddos.

  3. Looking forward to your follow-up post. One of the worst grouping strategies I was ever involved with was with placement based on the Myers-Briggs personality indicator. Groups of four were made up of one adult from each quadrant and we were given a week, I think, to create a project. It was one of the most stressful situations I’ve ever encountered.

    • I can imagine its tough to be in a group with dissimilar operational styles together. Philosophically, we *should* be stronger as a whole when we have all strength areas represented, but the reality often is that when the grouping is short-term and the stakes are high, it can be rough.

      Sue, what would you suggest as one way to accommodate that grouping? In other words, if you had a magic, time-traveling wand, how would you go back in time to improve your situation?

  4. I stopped high, medium, low grouping a long time ago. I’m so glad to see that others are letting it go as well.

  5. I would tell Ginger that if she wants to change her level of fitness then she needs to quit whining. I don’t think your example is fitting because fitness level is controllable or changeable. Ginger, the same can be said for Shelly, has made decisions that have impacted her fitness level, your example seems to excuse Ginger for the decisions that she has made.
    Group work with different levels in the group is good for all involved. It makes people empathetic for people different than them, it gives them chances to make connections with people that they didn’t know before to name a few. Group work should be prefaced with a class discussion about how groups work and then the teachers should monitor and model what group work looks like. Adults are working with each other on a daily basis, if they aren’t exposed to that as students then we are doing a disservice to them in the long run.

    • Patrick, I would say that learning levels are also controllable and changeable (See Dweck’s Mindsets). And I hope we would start with kids where their ability levels are and help them move forward, be it with fitness or cognitive abilities.

      There’s no excuse offered; it’s just where she is currently and there’s no need to make her feel bad for where she is, especially since she’s asking to move forward — and especially if we make the shift from thinking about physical to cognitive. I have to believe that you’d never tell a kid struggling academically to quit whining, even if her struggles were caused by her not doing her homework and developing skills gaps.

      We’re not living in the past (which, as teachers we are usually unable to change). We’re living in the now, dealing with who is in front of us today.

      And yes, kids should learn to work with others of varying abilities (see coming blog post–I promise it is coming). But when we also group kids specifically by ability levels as well, we are able to much more precisely target specific interventions based on need without watering down the learning or creating a culture of shame (of either being “dumb” or an “egg head”).

      Patrick, I like that you’re not letting me say we should group by ability levels only. You’re right. To do so would cheat kids of important skills as well. But I do see teachers totally avoiding the ability-level grouping strategy (aka “cluster grouping” if you want to check the data/research behind it), which I think is doing their kids a huge disservice.

      As I said, next blog post is coming–just been really slammed lately. 🙂

      • I appreciate your response and the open and honest discourse, this is a good discussion for me to be apart of moving back to a core class from an elective. I look forward to the coming post.

  6. […]  This is an interesting blog post about how a popular grouping strategy may not be as effective as we think.  I definitely think […]

  7. […] 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 […]

  8. Hey, everyone! The follow up posted is now up:
    3 (+1) Grouping Strategies to Avoid Creating Bullies

    Let me know what you think!

  9. Reblogged this on mrsfenger and commented:
    This is SO right! All teachers should read this and reconsider how groups get formed in the classroom.

  10. I agree completely! One of the best lessons I ever did involved groups where I ended up with a group of all the underachieving students. That group actually did really well, because there was no one there to do the work for them, so they got busy and did it!

  11. I love how you explained this! I have tried various types of grouping, and I have found that the high, middle, low grouping does just that. It causes more problems and more work than is necessary. I have also found that grouping based on ability alone: having a high group, a middle group, and a low group also causes problems. This is a way of grouping I refuse to use. The most heartbreaking thing is to hear a student say, “yea, I’m in the dumb group.” I am excited to read your follow-up and see how you recommend grouping students. I believe I will be doing that next. Thank you so much for your wonderful insights.

  12. […] on ability-levels 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 […]

  13. […] Solution: Students must be grouped by ability on a regular basis. This allows teachers to laser-pinpoint focus the work to best challenge each individual in a group to his or her fullest potential. After all, not all football players are ready for varsity-level action and to put a varsity-level player on a novice team would seriously limit his growth potential. However, if ability-grouping is the only way we’re grouping students, this too is inadequate. Students of all ability levels in a group are best served when they have a common interest. This interest-grouping allows all students to legitimately contribute to the process. The bottom line is that while we do want to regularly group students by ability level, all students be able to find themselves in a variety of groups on a regular basis. Not sure you agree? Read more about grouping here. […]

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