Putting Students in Groups
Students sit in groups of four in my classroom. The arrangement creates opportunities to collaborate, argue, and socialize around mathematics. It’s essential to how I design instruction.
This wasn’t a common approach when I first started teaching high school. But 20 years later the practice is so common there are different schools of thought about how to assign students to groups: homogeneous grouping (students at similar levels), heterogeneous grouping (students at different levels), visibly random grouping. Like most ideas in education, each approach has its proponents and detractors. And like most ideas in education, each approach can cycle from preferred to discouraged as it gains and loses favor in the spirit of the times.
I’ve always used a variety of strategies in assigning students to groups. As a mathematician I appreciate the benefits of randomization, but as a teacher I want to leverage my knowledge of my students in designing experiences that serve them best. Sometimes I want advanced students working with advanced students. Sometimes I want gregarious students working with quiet students. Sometimes I want Jane to work with Julie because they think in similar ways and I want them to share ideas. Sometimes I want to place students in groups based on who they are, hoping that they will enjoy themselves and learn and grow.
Like many teachers engaged in remote instruction I’ve been using breakout rooms to try to replicate some of the student-to-student interaction that comes from sitting together in small groups. It has been a challenge. Sitting in a zoom breakout room is not the same as sitting in a chair next to someone. The social dynamics are dramatically different. I’ve had some success, but I have not figured out how to make breakout rooms work the way I want them to.
Part of that may be because I just don’t know my students as well as I would under normal circumstances. I’ve felt this in many different ways throughout the year: When I can’t remember which student observed that congruence is a kind of similarity two days ago; when I’m trying to write a recommendation for a student I’ve taught only remotely; when I realize that I might not recognize John when I pass him in the hall next year.
When I recently changed group assignments for my classes, I felt this again. Because for the first time all year I was comfortable assigning students to groups based on who they are. It felt so normal, so satisfying. And then I realized that it’s April. It took me nearly all school year to reach this point. Better late than never, I suppose. It’s been a year of celebrating small successes, and I’ll take this one. And it will make reaching this point next November something to celebrate, too.