Group work in classrooms has become more and more common over the last several years. Many teachers use it to help students learn from each other, build community, and teach cooperation.
Effective and Important
Like anything in education, grouping works best when it is planned and used thoughtfully. Simply seating students in groups of four or five does not mean students are engaged with each other. It could simply mean they are going to play and talk, rather than complete regular class work. That is why it is important to plan group work and the types of groups you will be using.
Grouping students should allow, and even force, students to work together. It should build their communication skills, and help them learn how to respectfully hold each other accountable.
Types of Groups
There are two main types of groups that teachers use when having their students work cooperatively.
The first type is heterogeneous grouping. This means grouping students of different ability levels together. The definition could also be expanded to include grouping together students of different ages and races. In my classroom, I always think of it as groups of students of differing ability levels. The key word is different. I use heterogeneous grouping more frequently at the beginning of the school year so my students get to know each other and use it less frequently as the year progresses.
The second type is homogenous grouping. It simply means grouping together students that are similar. When I use homogenous grouping in my class, I usually look at my data notebook (See here for more information about data notebooks.) and place students together that scored similarly on standardized tests. For example, I might look and see which students scored low on the comma section of their standardized test and group those students together so I can work more closely with them. I might see who scored high and obviously needs no extra help, group them together and have them work on something different, like their journals. My groups will change depending on the lesson.
When used thoughtfully, all students benefit from grouping. The key is that there must be a plan and a purpose behind group work. Simply seating students together does not constitute group work. It might just mean you are creating a classroom management problem!
Teachers also benefit from group work. It allows you time to work with students in a small group setting rather than teaching the class as a whole. This will let you work more intensely with students, as well as get to know them better.
Familiarize yourself with a few classroom management techniques for group work before setting your students loose. Otherwise group work will not benefit anyone.
Planning for Group Work
When planning for group work, consider what you want your students to get out of it.
Do you want your students of higher ability levels to help those with lower ability levels? (Just be careful here and know your students. Make sure they will all benefit from this.)
- Do you want to have students of lower ability levels grouped together so you can work with them in a smaller group setting?
- Do you simply want your students to get to know each other and start building community in your class?
Your purpose should drive your groups.