Flexible Grouping Strategies

How and why to use flexible grouping in your classroom

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I started hearing the term “flexible grouping” a few years ago. It was a new concept for me, since I had been taught to group heterogeneously and pull out as needed. I certainly changed up my groups often and switched from groups of 3 to 4 to 6 to 2 as I thought best fit my lesson. Did this mean I was utilizing flexible grouping?

Not quite. Flexible grouping refers to moving students to appropriate groups depending on their readiness or learning style. It is a differentiation technique that ensures students are working with the group that best suits where they are in the lesson. Flexible grouping refers to a practice that has groups changing regularly, as student needs demand. The practice is grounded in data and intended to best serve students.

The first time I heard a superintendent talking about flexible grouping, I was a bit confused about how to implement it or even if I agreed with the theory. I did some research and started to play around with grouping strategies and found it really was a wonderful technique. My students became routinized to changing groups almost daily and I found that it really helped to differentiate the lessons and meet students where they were.

Let’s start by talking about the different sorts of groups we use when we flexibly group:

Data informed homogenous groupings:

Use data from exit tickets, Plickers or other formative assessments to inform your groups. The idea is to group students based on their level of understanding and level the work for each group appropriately.

Group students according to learning styles:

Use student surveys to determine who prefers hands on activities, projects or learning from videos. Who likes to work more independently. Who likes to work collaboratively. Group accordingly and provide groups with work that speaks to their interests.

Group students according to interests:

Have a group that enjoys baseball? Students who really excel with technology? Maybe a group who are artists? Make them a group and design their task around their interest.

Flexible groups can be heterogeneous or homogenous. They can be groups of 2 or 10. They can be selected by either students or teachers.

Credit: Canva

Below are the nuts and bolts of how I implemented flexible grouping in my Algebra class.

Routinize seating notifications:

Every day, students would come into class and check the board for their seat assignment. This was an easy process that added about 30 seconds to entry. I projected the seating chart on the smart board and and students would find their seats and begin their Do Now right away. At the beginning of the year students would sometimes be resistant to sitting here or there but eventually they learned that this was just the way we ran class, and they got used to it.

It didn’t add much to my planning time to create these seating charts every day. I used a simple word document with tables inserted to represent each grouping. It took about 5 minutes to look through the data and shuffle around students into their groups for the day. I would work through this with my co-teacher on our last prep of the day in preparation for the next day.

Different seating for different lessons:

I came to find that when I was introducing new content, heterogeneous groups of 3-4 worked best. These groups didn’t need to be based on interests or learning styles per se. These groups worked well in helping each other to accrue new information and apply it in class.

When we were synthesizing lessons, however, homogenous groups based on learning styles were much more advantageous. I would group students using data from Plickers, quizzes or Blookets. Advanced groups could push each other to synthesize information from multiple skills to solve a complex real world problem. On level groups could support each other to synthesize multiple skills with scaffolds to solve a rich problem. Below level groups could work with teacher support to pull together skills to solve multi step problems.

When we were studying for a test or working on projects, heterogeneous groups based on interests worked best. This way, students could help each other while they each worked independently to create the same sort of product as the other members of their group. For example, one group contained students who all wanted to create posters to demonstrate their learning. Another group contained students who wanted to use technology to create a video or presentation to demonstrate their learning. Other groups contained students to wanted to work together to create a board game to demonstrate their knowledge.

What I found, over time, was that this differentiation technique produced major advancements in student learning. Students were able to get targeted interventions through the homogenous groupings, and they were also able to experience activities that spoke to their strengths and interests when I grouped them according to learning styles and interests. Students definitely felt that I knew them well by the way I placed them. Our classroom community was greatly strengthened because students not only got to know everyone in class, but they got to learn about their interests and strengths.

As you’re planning for next school year, think about flexible grouping. Maybe its something that will work for your students!

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