In my PBL workshops, I’m often asked to share my favorite grouping strategies based on my 7 years of experience with Project Based Learning. It seems that grouping is a universal problem in any classroom, where, once groups are formed, one kid does all the work for him/herself while others are content to do anything but work.
As teachers, how do we combat that?
One strategy often used is to assign clear roles and responsibilities for each student to ensure that the work is fair and that each is doing her own part, right? Another might even be to ask students to evaluate and assign points to other group members, so each will be held accountable for working.
I wonder, though, if that truly solves the problem? And I also wonder if that level of intervention belongs in a PBL environment where we’re trying to get kids, who are fully capable of doing so, to decide to create roles for themselves (I’m thinking upper elementary through high school here).
Also, I notice that those strategies attempt to only address behavior issues. What are we doing for academic equity? How are we ensuring that each kid is learning all we expect her to?
I don’t know about you, but I was taught in college (19 years ago) that creating work groups with a HIGH, a MEDIUM, and a LOW student in each was the right and the fair thing to do. The idea is that the HIGH ability student can (re)teach and guide the lower-ability student, right? I see many teachers currently doing this. And I see that a very famous program also is pushing the same thing today.
But I’m going to tell you that there’s no faster way to tear your classroom culture apart than to group High/Medium/Low students together. Simply, I believe it’s wrong and quite the opposite of equitable.And I’ll tell you why…
So I admit that I’m not really the most physically fit person in the world…stick with me on this story…
I have a teacher-friend we’ll call Shelly (not her real name). Shelly is a good person and she’s a truly good friend. And she’s very, very physically fit. She loves the gym and fitness. So it makes sense for me to go to her for help in getting more fit, right? Shelly agrees to help me and we set a date to meet at the gym.
The day we meet up, Shelly is ready to go! I’m hesitant, but know this is the right thing to do. We start off with, according to Shelly, some “light aerobic” warm ups. Pretty soon it’s obvious that “light aerobic” to me and “light aerobic” to Shelly is not the same thing at all. I’m already huffing and puffing 10 minutes in and have worked up more than just a light bead of sweat on my upper lip. Oh, who’m I kidding? I’m already sweating through my shirt.
And I look over at Shelly. She smiles at me, continuing her story about … I don’t even remember what. I do remember noting that she’s talking easily and not sweating at all. She even has lung power to laugh and to offer words of encouragement for me. Yay.
So it goes on.
Throughout the entire hour, Shelly is being supportive and I’m trying to hold my breath and my sweat, embarrassed by how terribly out of shape I am. Looking at my friend, I’m starting to hate on her. And I’m starting to hate my time at the gym, realizing this whole thing may have been a mistake. Shelly’s still smiling and not even breaking stride in her peppy and perky breathing. And there’s not one piece of sweat anywhere on her! Did I see her just send an empathetic smile at me during the final push? Ugh. That’s all I need. Pity.
I hate her.
Ah, that’s not true. If I didn’t like her, I’d punch her. But I am thinking about it. It’s just a good thing she’s nice.
At the end of the workout, we walk out to the parking lot. I get in my car, still breathing and still damp (dripping). Shelly offers still more words of encouragement and tells me she’ll text me to set up our next exercise date. I say yeah, trying to hide my embarrassment and my hatred for her perkiness. I drive away. Shelly smiles and waves, watching me go, then goes back into the gym to get her own workout.
See, she didn’t gain any personal benefit from our workout together. She’s just my cheerleader and I hate her for it.
You see, I think that story of Shelly and me illustrates precisely the physicalmanifestation of what we do to kids academically. We create haters in our classrooms by putting High with Low. We don’t mean to, but it happens every single time.
Luckily for me, Shelly is encouraging and friendly. What if she wasn’t? How vulnerable am I then? How likely is it that I’ll ever want to work hard with her?
And what if I wasn’t nice? What’s the dynamic now if I’m a kid who is ready to persecute Shelly for being a know-it-all as my own defense mechanism?
You see, I think that often, High/Medium/Low ability groupings tear our classroom dynamics apart more than we know. And I think we create “Miss Bossy-pants” and “The Log” kids and then WE blame THEM for being that way, when we set up the situation for them to be put into those roles!
It hurts my heart.
But I do have ideas for how we can move forward. Where Shelly can get an appropriate workout and how I can as well.
Because each kid deserves to be:
- taught by a highly-qualified teacher and not another student, and
- to be appropriately challenged at their own levels of readiness.