Collaborative Learning

A New Approach to Flexible Grouping

This strategy for flexible grouping mixes whole class, small group, and individual practice in one lesson and helps build a classroom community.

August 30, 2023
SDI Productions / iStock

It’s the first week of school, and I’m asking myself, “Should I focus on building my classroom’s culture, knowing I’ll be behind in my curriculum, or jump into teaching and learning at the expense of community-building?”

Why not both?

Grouping Cycles—our school’s approach to flexible grouping—allow students to engage with curricular content while building community in the early weeks of school and beyond. When students collaborate, relationships form. And when that collaboration is connected to curricula, we meet relational and instructional goals in tandem.

Grouping Cycles blend whole class, small group, and individual practice in one lesson by strategically grouping and regrouping students. Flexible grouping is not a new concept: Marguerite Radencich and Lyn McKay noted the effectiveness of students moving fluidly through elementary reading groups in 1995, Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe noted how groups could be used flexibly to differentiate instruction in academically diverse classrooms in 2006, and as recently as 2022, Kristina Doubet wrote a book on the topic.

Our twist requires beginning and ending a lesson with the same type of grouping, which can have immediate impacts on students’ sense of belonging and engagement with classroom content.

Prompt students to actively forge relationships

When teachers use Grouping Cycles, they are deliberately grouping and regrouping students in a short amount of time. In a traditional cycle, the lesson begins with a whole group activity, you provide students with time to practice individually, and then groups of students share their thought processes. 

When the teacher ends the lesson by reconvening the whole group, students have a wealth of information to draw upon as they discuss their own practice and that of their small groups.

In a geometry class, the lesson might begin with a whole group demonstration of how to use a compass. Students might then work individually on a performance task related to acute and obtuse angles. Next, the teacher would move students into groups of four to continue their work and discuss the results. When the class reconvened, the teacher might ask a student, “What was one question that you asked your group, and what did your group tell you?” 

Here, students are relying on one another to cocreate knowledge rather than focusing all of their attention on the adult in the room or the piece of paper in front of them.

Encourage knowledge revision

We all relish “aha” moments. But how can those moments occur naturally? If a teacher begins a lesson with independent practice, moves to homogeneous small group practice and then whole group instruction, and culminates by returning to independent practice, the chances of students realizing and fixing their mistakes grow exponentially.

In a language arts class, students are tasked with drafting the introductory paragraph to an essay. The teacher, engaging in Grouping Cycles, can move students into groups of three and ask them to score sample paragraphs. 

Next, the whole class can convene to discuss the merits, flaws, and scores of each sample. And finally, students can return to their initial paragraphs and revise their work given the small group and whole group learning that occurred.

Enhance differentiated instruction

A Grouping Cycle is a way for teachers to personalize instruction. When a teacher is deliberate, not only about how students are grouped, but also about when they’re grouped, it becomes easier to fully mobilize the power of differentiation. 

Consider, for example, a health sciences class with vastly diverse student needs and abilities. Using a Grouping Cycle, a teacher might divide students into pairs and ask them to organize a list of medical terms. They might organize the terms alphabetically, by body region, or in a simple “know/don’t know” chart. 

Individually, students may have an opportunity to complete a formative practice by defining a few key terms from the list. The teacher can then gather the results and discuss with the class the most common errors. To culminate, the teacher can re-partner students and provide them with a more complex task related to the terminology.

When groups aren’t working well

The beauty of using a Grouping Cycle is that it is a quick strategy. In the same hour, students are transitioning into new groupings at least three times. They may start with a 10-minute individual task, improve their work in a data-driven small group for 20 minutes, debrief their group conversation with the whole class for 10 minutes, and then engage in a new task to show how their thinking has changed. 

Here, the teacher is leading the whole class for just 10 minutes. The rest of the time, they are monitoring and tweaking groups based on what they see and hear. A great chef doesn’t stir, poke, and prod your dinner the whole time she is preparing it. She also tastes it along the way and makes small adjustments. So, too, does the teacher using a Grouping Cycle make these real-time changes: Individual students are swapped because one group is too quiet; tasks are changed on the fly because the whole group needs a moment of remediation. 

The timing of each step in the cycle is adjusted based on the needs of the class. And the teacher remains the best resource students have, implementing Grouping Cycles as a tool for delivering high-quality instruction.

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Filed Under

  • Collaborative Learning
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Student Engagement
  • 9-12 High School

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