Student Grouping: What is Effective?

How do we leverage student grouping to best promote achievement?

This is a question teachers and administrators ask themselves almost daily. Unfortunately, there are few clear or easy answers. But we can draw out a few general principles from recent research and other sources of knowledge that may help to inform our instructional practice.

It’s important to acknowledge there’s often a steady pressure on teachers to utilize group work. And for some teachers, grouping students by ability can make serving a wide disparity of different levels of students more manageable.

But there’s an often unstated assumption: group work is inherently superior to whole class or independent learning. But is group work always better than other modes of learning?

Tom Bennett, a British behavioral specialist, argues in an article in American Educator, “Group Work for the Good,” that there is little research to suggest group work is better for academic learning. Bennett cautions teachers to only “use group work when you feel it is appropriate to the task you want your students to achieve, and at no other time.

OK, but what are the times when group work is appropriate? Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, in their book, Guided Instruction: How to Develop Confident and Successful Learners, offer some important insight. Here’s a short passage from their first chapter:

“. . . an understanding of memory systems has profound implications for instruction, which include creating systematic and intentional scaffolds of students’ understanding rather than leaving them alone to discover information independently. That’s not to say that students should not work together in collaborative learning; they should. We have argued for productive group work in which students interact with one another and generate ideas to produce individual works (Frey et al., 2009). But this work must center on the consolidation and application of content that students already know. It’s neither the time nor the place to introduce new information. Doing so would overload the working memory system and fail to ensure learning(Bold added).

In other words, new concepts and information should not be introduced during group work. Group work should be used for reinforcing, consolidating, and applying information students have already been exposed to.

So now we’re only selectively and strategically using group work to reinforce content we’ve already introduced to our students. But how do we ensure students are productive during the times when they do work as a group? Here it can be instructive to look at some of the analysis coming out of the business sector. Fostering productive teams, after all, is critical to the success or failure of many modern businesses.

One finding from the business realm that will make immediate sense to educators is that creating a context that fosters shared identity promotes productivity. You can read more about this research in “Spaces the Signal Identity Improve Workplace Productivity,” in the Journal of Personnel Psychology. We know that giving our students a sense of belonging and recognizing who they are and what they bring is critical to fostering a positive school community. But it’s good to know that it also can improve group performance.

Another finding is that how a team communicates is what determines its effectiveness. As presented in an article, “The New Science of Building Great Teams” in Harvard Business Review, effective teams communicate more equitably and with higher engagement. And even more critically for consideration in a school context, socialization outside of formal meeting time has a huge influence on team effectiveness. What this means for educators is that fostering effective group work requires time and training. Furthermore, as described in a passage “Group Dynamics for Teams” by Daniel Levi, this training requires norming, socialization, and building cooperative skills. Educators know that many of our students struggle with social skills and working productively together. These skills must be taught and developed.

Similarly, moving into research from higher education, in “What makes a ‘good group’? Exploring the characteristics and performance of undergraduate student groups” the authors argue that if “team working skills” are “important as a learning outcome, they must be assessed directly alongside the task output.” In other words, if a teacher is going to utilize group work for a task, they must establish explicit learning objectives for the skills practiced in the group work itself, not only for the content of the task. This again reinforces the idea that when we do use group work, we must do so strategically.

This builds off of Robert Slavin’s review of educational research, as outlined in an ACSD article, “Cooperative Learning and Student Achievement,” which suggests that not only must effective group work have group goals and rewards, but also must hold each individual accountable for their contribution. Group work which incorporates only one aspect of those two critical components (group goals and individual accountability) demonstrates little benefit to learning, whereas group learning which incorporates both is far more effective.

Even adult research teams require training and practice to develop intrapersonal awareness, foster shared norms, and to understand that conflict is normal, as suggested by a paper “Creating and maintaining high-performing collaborative research teams: the importance of diversity and interpersonal skills.” The authors further suggest that fostering diverse teams is essential to productivity.

This latter insight, that diverse teams are more productive, may be one of the most useful within a classroom context. Various studies, as presented in an article on Harvard Business Review, “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter” by David Rock and Heidi Grant, suggest that ethnic and racial diversity makes for more effective, deliberative, and innovative teams. This is an important consideration for teachers when forming groups.

However, it’s important to note that research on homogeneous vs. heterogeneous grouping is mostly unclear. Ultimately, how a teacher chooses to group students must be strategic and based on the task and learning outcomes. But the findings on diversity seem to suggest that our default should be mixing students of different backgrounds and ability.

A synthesis of findings on effective group work

Ok, so we’ve reviewed a fair amount of information on grouping. Let’s summarize what we have so far:

  • Use group work only when it is necessary to achieve the task you are planning
  • Use group work only to reinforce and apply content students are already familiar with
  • Create a classroom and school environment that fosters a shared identity
  • Provide norming, time for socialization, and training in the cooperative skills students will require to work productively as a team
  • Set explicit learning targets for group work skills when engaging in a group task, while holding each individual student accountable for their work within the group
  • Group students heterogeneously to promote greater critical thinking and creativity

Sources

Bennett, T. (2015). Group Work for the Good. American Educator. Retrieved from http://www.aft.org/ae/spring2015/bennett

Channon, S.B. (2017). What makes a ‘good group’? Exploring the characteristics and performance of undergraduate student groups. SpringerLink. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10459-016-9680-y

Cheruvelil, K. S., Soranno, P. A., Weathers, K. C., Hanson, P. C., Goring, S. J., Filstrup, C. T. and Read, E. K. (2014), Creating and maintaining high-performing collaborative research teams: the importance of diversity and interpersonal skills. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 12: 31–38. doi:10.1890/130001. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1890/130001/abstract

Greenaway, K.H., Hannibal A. Thai, S. Haslam, A., and Murphy, S.C. (2016). Spaces That Signal Identity Improve Workplace Productivity. Journal of Personnel Psychology. 15(1), 35–43. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301277968_Spaces_That_Signal_Identity_Improve_Workplace_Productivity

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2010). Scaffolds for Learning: The Key to Guided Instruction. ASCD. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/111017/chapters/Scaffolds-for-Learning@-The-Key-to-Guided-Instruction.aspx

Levi, D. (2001). Group Dynamics for Teams. Sage Publications, 322 pp. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.840.9487&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Pentland, A.S. (2012). The New Science of Building Great Teams. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/04/the-new-science-of-building-great-teams

Rock, D. and Grant, H. (2016.). Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-diverse-teams-are-smarter

Slavin, R. (1988). Cooperative Learning and Student Achievement. ASCD. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_198810_slavin.pdf

Wang, Z. (2013). Effects of heterogenous and homogenous grouping on student learning. Chapel Hill. Retrieved from https://cdr.lib.unc.edu/indexablecontent/uuid:ac391807-1cca-447e-801d-d65183945ad0

Yee, V. (2013.). Grouping Students by Ability Regains Favor With Educators. NY Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/10/education/grouping-students-by-ability-regains-favor-with-educators.html

Group Work Decision Tree

Student Grouping: What is Effective? by Mark Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on a work at https://goo.gl/z6zDwJ

Smorgasbord: Acclaim for Michaela, Cognitive Science, and a Movement for School Integration

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I’ve been moving apartments this week, so I haven’t been as closely attuned to all things ED, but here’s a few links worth reviewing when you take a break from admiring the swiftly changing color of the leaves on this lovely autumnal weekend.

Acclaiming Michaela

There’s a school entitled Michaela that has apparently been getting some guff in the UK reminiscent of the strong debate that Success Academy engenders here in NYC.

Tom Bennett, the founder of ResearchED (coming to a D.C. near you in a couple of weekends), writes a defense of the school, noting that while it’s intense structure and discipline are not for everyone, critics need to get off their high horses.

Doug Lemov has also taken a gander, and he challenges educators to learn from innovations that are worth emulating, rather than merely criticize from afar. In that spirit, he is exploring some of the practices he finds worthy of stealing in a series of blogs, beginning with this one on Michaela’s “maximum impact, minimum effort” grading policy. Schools renowned for sucking the pith out of young teachers (like, ahem, Success Academy) would do well to consider it. Teaching is a demanding profession, and the more we can reduce paperwork that bears little impact, the better.

I haven’t been much aware of any controversy around Michaela, but I have been very aware of it’s innovative and research-based approach to instruction and curriculum design, thanks to the consistently trenchant writing of Joe Kirby. This summer I switched to an out-of-classroom role designing professional development, and I’ve found myself continually revisiting some of his posts, as well as blogs of other UK educators such as Daisy Christodoulou, Alex Quigley, David Didau, David Fawcett, and many others. I don’t know what’s in the water over there, but UK educators seem to spend a lot more time blogging about practice and research, rather than politics, and it’s refreshing.

Speaking of Research

Deans for Impact founder Benjamin Riley penned a piece for Kappan presenting the case for educator practice to be informed by principles from cognitive science research. And if you haven’t read Deans for Impact’s The Science of Learning, you should probably make that priority number one. Another resource I’ve found myself continually revisiting when designing professional learning.

The Movement for Increasing School Diversity is Growing

I’ve written about the need for increasing school and neighborhood diversity before, and you’ll be hearing much more from me on this; it’s the focus I’ve selected for my NY policy fellowship with America Achieves this year. I’ve been really excited to see an increasing amount of media coverage, advocacy, and ground work taking place on this issue.

This week, NYC Councilmember Helen Rosenthal pushed back against the privileged Upper West Side parents who have been vocal opponents of school rezoning efforts.

The Hechinger Report took a deep dive in an analysis of the desegregation and resegregation of Greenville, Mississippi. Many insights and lessons to heed here.

The Century Foundation released a report on the increasing efforts at school integration, while highlighting the dinosaur progress occurring in NYC.

And Nautil.us magazine highlights research from MIT that “has shown that in both the U.S. and European Union, wealth is predicted by the diversity of face-to-face communication and that both poverty and crime levels are predicted by the isolation of a community.” This confirms my premise for increasing school and neighborhood diversity: we can only really fight discrimination and bias, and improve long-term outcomes, when we interact daily, face-to-face, with others who are different than us.

Sunday Smorgasbord: Race, Pedagogy, Business, and Science

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Race

Andrew Rotherham, aka Eduwonk, advises us to “buckle up” and expect more of the sort of suburban bred “local control” fearmongering against diversity and federal intrusion seen in this op-ed.

For more context and history on the racism that underlies that brand of fear, as well as to understand how it relates to crusades for local control of public land, read this excellent longform piece.

Federal protections can backfire, however, such as in this sad irony of fair housing laws used to prevent “community preference” in lotteries for affordable housing in San Francisco.

Even in diverse schools, students of color can still be denied a quality education. The question seems to be: how do you “create a more equitable environment and also keep the most powerful parents happy”? It’s a sad question to have to ask, but finding a solution to it will determine the success of future efforts in increasing school diversity.

Diversity is worth it, though, at least when it comes to working on a team. The work feels harder, but the outcomes are better. (This parallels the idea of fostering “desirable difficulty” in classroom learning.)

Because we all want money.


Pedagogy

The inimitable E.D. Hirsch, Jr., makes the case that “good teaching can often depend more reliably on the coherence of the wider system, and on the cooperation it brings, than on virtuoso performances.” Stop blaming the teachers, and start developing better systems and curriculum.

Doug Lemov interviews Tim Shanahan, who articulates the nuance of teaching reading strategies, provides a sound definition of close reading, and dispels the myth that leveled reading is worth any teacher’s time.

At the Windward School in Manhattan, they are using gesture and movement to teach reading to students with disabilities, and having powerful results. There’s something to this connection between corporeal movement and conceptual understanding; in the math realm, research suggests the same area of our brain that counts on our fingers continues to be activated when we move to higher level problem-solving.


Business

Speaking of bodies, traders who are more effective listen to their bodies when making decisions under stress, rather than their minds.

We always hear from business leaders about how we’re not equipping our kids enough in K-12 with the high-level skills they are trying to hire for. But the FiveThirtyEight argues that there’s less of a skills gap, and more of a lack of job-specific training provided by those businesses.

In the most positive and exciting news in this presidential campaign thus far, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are strongly committed to investing in infrastructure.


Science

Our brain’s connectivity and wiring may be determined by its physical structure, not simply by its chemistry.

It may be possible to predict life success from a test at birth. This has much to do with “education-linked genes.” Which is scary.

And an important reminder that context and nuance is much needed when discussing research.

 

 

Providing context for concepts may hinder transfer

“One implication of this pattern of results is that as an instructor designs their instructional materials, they should be asking themselves whether they are trying to optimize their students’ demonstrated mastery of the material itself or their ability to transfer their understanding to new materials. . . .

Simply adding richer meaningful content to in-class examples may make intuitive sense, and may have immediately obvious benefits in terms of student engagement and comprehension. But as the results of our experiments make clear, these short-term benefits seem to come at the cost of students’ long-term ability to apply their knowledge. If educators are to take advantage of these inherent benefits, they will need to give careful consideration to how such examples are designed and used together in order to plan the most effective instruction.”

—Samuel Day, Benjamin Motz, and Robert Goldstone, “The Cognitive Costs of Context: The Effects of Concreteness and Immersiveness in Instructional Examples” on frontiers in Psychology (H/T Greg Ashman)

The Beauty of Teaching, the Teaching of Beauty

Every teacher I know believes that our jobs hold some deeper purpose than test preparation. What is this deeper purpose?

There are many answers to this question. Some folks argue that we are imparting “core knowledge” to our students that will help them easily assimilate into the adult world. Others argue that we’re providing our students with occupational skills. Still others argue that we’re helping our students develop the analytical skills necessary to become responsible citizens.

One thing I try to do in the classroom is help my students appreciate beauty. Whether we’re reading Of Mice and Men or discussing evolutionary theory, my students are not simply acquiring new skills or information. They are learning that science and literature can be beautiful.

In her wonderful book, “On Beauty and Being Just,” Elaine Scarry argues that beauty itself is a kind of teacher:

“Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people…The generation is unceasing.

[The] willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky.”

This process Scarry describes is, in fact, my favorite part of teaching: directing students towards beautiful things, as well as helping them recognize the beauty of things. It goes without saying that this process is impossible to measure with an alphanumeric scale, and that test-obsessed reformers have sucked much of the beauty out of our classrooms. Yet when this process bears fruit, its value– for both student and teacher– is immense.

Beauty, as Scarry points out, motivates us. A student who sees the beauty in a sonnet or an equation will seek out more sonnets and equations, and will eventually start their own sonnets and equations. This is why many of us become teachers: to share something beautiful with our students and thus ensure that this beauty continues to perpetuate itself. Surely there’s an intrinsic value in that.

The Correlation Between Craft Brewing and the Craft of Teaching

A recent post up on Fast Company by Shawn Parr recently caught my eye as I skimmed through the headlines:

How Sam Adams Founder Jim Koch Is Helping Entrepreneurs Brew The American Dream

It caught my eye firstly because Sam Adams beer just so happens to be one of my perennial favorites, and secondly, because I strangely find some of the ideas from entrepreneurial activities to be transferable to education reform (perhaps not so strange: disrupting the monopolies of ed publishing companies is an important movement currently taking place in the field. Furthermore, teaching itself is arguably akin to managing a business).
As I read Jim Koch’s insights and wisdom from his extensive work in craft brewing, I was not disappointed. In fact, I found his insight quite tangibly applicable to the craft of teaching. Here’s how:

When you start a business, you have to do everything and it’s important to focus on the activities that provide the best return on time invested. Yes, our bookkeeping was a mess in our first year, but I decided that if we failed, the IRS wouldn’t care about us, and if we succeeded, we would be able to afford lawyers and accountants to straighten things out.  So we focused on the things that did matter: making great beer and working hard to sell it.

I can’t tell you how many times as a newer teacher, I’ve grown incredibly agitated by things like endlessly accumulating piles of papers on and inside of my desk and closet. But Koch’s point here — to focus on the things that truly matter — is critical to a beginning classroom teacher. How often do we focus our energy and time on bulletin boards, door displays, or the formatting of our lesson plans? These things are inconsequential in the long run. What’s important is making great lessons and working hard to deliver them. And as a teacher in a high needs school, I can’t tell you how much time and money is wasted on things that won’t provide much return on the investment.

We empower and challenge our brewers to find new beers, new ways to brew, and unique ingredients. I enjoy pushing boundaries with extreme beers, interesting ingredients, as well as the brewing and aging processes. It’s my life’s work, to elevate people’s thinking about beer and push the boundaries of traditional brewing to offer beer lovers an inspired drinking experience. . . 

We experiment, we have fun, and often the outcome is a truly great beer.

This empowerment for risk-taking, fun, and innovation is key to fostering great teachers and dynamic and positive learning environments. Empower and challenge our teacher leaders, o ye principals and district leaders and policymakers, and the outcome shall be truly great schools.

And to this day, I taste a sample from every batch of Boston Lager and meet every Sam Adams employee. You’ll never see me on Undercover Boss, because at some point during the year, I work directly with just about everyone in the company. . .

. . . I make decisions based on the beer, not the bottom line.

Koch would make a great superintendent of a school district. The majority of communication and accountability feedback right now in public school systems is driven by compliance based regulations from afar, all determined by the bottom line of test scores. This form of accountability does little to nurture positive professional learning communities, and is in fact detrimental to learning environments. But real, face-to-face accountability from leaders who are deeply immersed and steeped in the everyday practice of education is invaluable to developing quality schools. Our district leaders and state leaders should be visiting schools daily, stepping foot in classrooms, talking to students, talking to teachers, talking to principals. There is no other form of accountability, no checklist, no policy, no regulation or law that will change the culture of schools otherwise.

My main goal is to help fellow entrepreneurs get a leg up. Our commitment to the community goes beyond the walls of our brewery. Brewing the American Dream is intended to support business owners by providing them with the ingredients to become financially independent and see their American dreams come true. Our goal with the craft brewing component is to support small business owners in our industry who are facing the same hurdles around starting or expanding their nano- or microbreweries that I faced when I started brewing Samuel Adams.

Wait, what? Koch is actively giving money to other craft brewers to establish their own businesses? Isn’t that counter to the success of his own business? Well, no. Koch recognizes something that businessmen and reform leaders still immersed in the industrial model fail to comprehend: healthy, stable relationships within a given ecosystem are developed through collaboration and interdependence. Businesses benefit from cooperation and collaboration with other businesses. Schools benefit from cooperation and collaboration amongst their teachers and between other schools. But right now, teachers in many schools are competing with one another in negative environments notable most for closed doors, gossip, and backstabbing rather than open doors, professional conversations, and collaboration. And this is traceable directly to the impact of accountability based upon high stakes value-added models.

The interview contains more great insights within it, such as Koch’s thoughts on microfinance, and is well worth perusing. Here’s to craft brewing, and here’s to the craft of teaching.