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Four approaches to grouping that promote high expectations teaching

Teachers’ expectations of their students’ learning may be more important in influencing student progress than pupils’ abilities. ‘High expectation teachers’ believe that students will learn faster and will improve their level of achievement. They also have more positive attitudes towards learners and more effective teaching practices.

However, high expectations on their own are not enough to impact on achievement. It is the combination of high expectations with particular beliefs and teaching practices that have the biggest impact on student learning.

Christine Rubie-Davies at the University of Auckland has demonstrated that when teachers adopt practices common to high expectation teachers (specifically relating to grouping and activities, class climate, and goal setting), there are gains to students’ achievement.

Here are four ways to approach grouping:

  • Group children flexibly in small (4–6 students) heterogeneous groups comprising a range of abilities and genders. Average and low achievers have been found to benefit when they work with a range of peers across the class. Be strategic about group formation, promoting social relationships and social support by ensuring that all students work with each other at some time over the year. Regular reshuffling of groups enables students to develop better friendships across the classroom, which leads to higher levels of peer support and a more positive class climate.
  • Change groupings fairly frequently, at least once a month and sometimes weekly, using individual cards for each student’s name to display groupings easily. Some high expectation teachers group children by ability for instruction, but not for learning activities. Flexible grouping arrangements mean that students receive instruction at their current level of need without experiencing the strict stratification of ability grouping and its negative effects on self-esteem and motivation. Some high expectation teachers do not group students even for instruction, but just draw students together to teach them a skill when they need to learn it, or work with students individually.

Ideas for assigning groups

Shuffle name cards for random groupings, or agree groups at the beginning of the year based on students’ favourite colours or authors, their pets or other criteria such as alphabetical name order, birth month or shoe size. Create a clock spinner which can be used to randomly select which groupings will be used for that lesson’s activities.

  • Structure your classroom so that differentiation between high and low achievers and the kinds of learning experiences they engage in are minimised. All activities should be available for all students and there should be a variety of levels of attainment possible within each activity. Students can choose something at their level or perhaps something more challenging while working with a peer. Teachers report that children are likely to select an activity that suits their level of skill. For example, students rarely choose to read books that are too easy (because they become bored), or too hard (because they become frustrated).
  • Allow students to choose their own activities from a range of options so that they experience some autonomy and responsibility for their own learning. Student choice creates a warmer and more supportive classroom climate, but initially students will need instruction on how to do each independent activity. Then you might offer a range of activities and direct students to complete a certain number. You might make a list of daily reading activities for example, and mark with a peg which ones students can choose from for this lesson. Or you might create a ‘tic tac toe’ 3×3 grid in which students must select three activities either across, down or diagonally. Have students change activities regularly — at which point you can also work with a different student or group for your planned teaching activities.