One of our amazing educators and the head of our program team, Scott Feille, took some time to share his best practices for grouping kids, even in a virtual environment.
Teachers are always learning, and like all educators these days, I’ve been consuming enormous amounts of informational resources to help me understand how to effectively provide the best possible instruction remotely. I’ve learned a lot over the summer.
But in one recent webinar, they advised teachers to create virtual student break-out groups, then showed the teachers how different tech platforms allowed teachers to parse out students into individual chat rooms. And that was that. The webinar then skipped along to the next bite-sized “best practice.”
What concerned me is that while necessary, this “which button do I push” aspect of how to create a break out group is only a small technical detail. Imagine going to a cooking class and having them show you how to turn on the oven, and then send you on your way. There is so much more that needs to be done to actually make this a “best practice.”
When well-executed, student breakout groups can be incredibly powerful tools to boost SEL and 21st Century Skills, but just like with in-person instruction, without intentionality and planning, breakout groups can be useless, or worse, frustrating time-wasting exercises that disengage students from day one.
I once had a student who’d been a part of a randomized three–day group project over the summer. It was supposed to help students get to know a few classmates before school started. But he said the only thing the groups learned was who drove who nuts so they could avoid one another the rest of the year. Hardly what any teacher wants.
Forgive the cooking analogy, I’ve been spending more time in the kitchen than usual these past few months, but what we want from groups is soup. A combination of different skills and personalities that, when combined in the right amounts and in the right conditions, brings out something great from each ingredient and creates something wonderful.
If our goal is to foster peer-to-peer connections and promote collaboration while students are working remotely, we have to be more intentional than ever in our groupings. We can’t just hit the buttons and leave the rest up to chance. We need to apply the same pedagogical recipes and skills from the physical classroom, and adapt them for this new digital environment.
So, for you fellow teachers cooking at home, here’s my tried and true recipe. Feel free to improvise and improve, all the great chefs do, but I know how stressed everyone is and I’ll do whatever I can to make more effective instruction easier for everyone.
Step 1 – NO RANDOM GROUPS
You wouldn’t toss random ingredients into a pot your first day in the kitchen. So the first and most important thing is to get to know your students so that breakout groups aren’t random.
You can do this a number of different ways, from a simple ice-breaker exercise to straightforward questions on how they like to receive information, or you can even have them do a pictorial representation of themselves or their learning styles. I’ve even seen teachers do modified Myers-Briggs tests for their classes.
Ask yourself explicitly — How should I group these students?
It’s fine to start out simple and easy. I find music can be a helpful grouping category early on. Or grouping by other common interests, like sports or reading. Videogames are overwhelming students’ interests these days, so I have to exclude them up front “If you couldn’t play videogames, what would you do with an hour of free time?” Or you can incorporate them – “Animal Crossing or Overwatch?’
Stay away from any family-based groupings, you never know what a student’s home life is like, and watch out for questions that might tend to align students by demographic. You don’t want anything that divides by gender race, income, etc.
A lot of teachers I know reflexively separate friends. But especially in the beginning, I say go ahead and match kids for comfort. We could all use a little more comfort these days, and at the beginning of the year, being in a group with other students with things in common decreases social pressure and allows students to learn your routines and grow accustomed to interacting.
Step 2 — LEAVE THEM BE
Soup is always better the next day, and it takes a bit for any group to gel. Especially when students are working remotely, leave them in their groups for a couple weeks so they gain enough experience with one another that they’re not just working off of a quick first impression for the rest of the year. Build in enough time for them to get over a bump or two, and perhaps some intentional activities to help them socialize. Once students learn the routines of your classroom and grow accustomed to regular group work, consider being ambitious and group students in ways that challenge and stretch their academic and socio-emotional skills.
Step 3 – SET GOALS
Social Emotional Learning is an important part of every child’s education. It’s not a “nice to have.” So give students concrete goals. If they know what to look for, they’ll be able to engage more and work harder towards your objectives. Recipes have pictures for a reason. You want to know what it’s supposed to look like in the end.
Ask yourself explicitly — Why do you group?
When I’m grouping students, I’m doing so with specific goals in mind, for the individuals and the group as a whole, and I let them know why.
For the group as a whole I build in mandatory, but ungraded group reflections and self-evaluations with 3 or 4 questions they have to answer unanimously as a group. Giving students this rubric up front gives them the language and structures they need to look at their interactions from a more objective perspective. I keep the questions simple:
Rate your group interactions from 1-5
- We always speak respectfully.
- When we have disagreements, we can resolve them without support.
- We ask for support when we need it.
Forcing the final score to be unanimous really levels up the learning, turning groups into their own jurors. They can agree on a number, or take the average of independent scores, but conversations around these rubrics always bring really interesting perspectives to light. By making students share their perceptions and experiences out loud with their group, they get a heavy dose of looking at the world through someone else’s eyes.
Step 4 — BE TRANSPARENT.
I’m a huge proponent on modeling my thought process.
Whenever I group students, I explain to them why they’re in this particular grouping, what I hope they’ll get out of it, and where my uncertainties are. I’ll even let them know where I can spot potential friction and challenges so it doesn’t take them by surprise.
Pairing the kid that quickly plows through assignments with the perfectionist who agonizes over every detail, and telling them (tactfully) that they both have valuable skills to share with one another can produce long-lasting results. But not if they can’t see it.
Usually, I’ll take students aside either individually or in challenging pairs and tell them why I’m putting them in a particular group. For individuals, I’ll remind them of the growth I’ve seen in previous exercises, and have them keep a look out for opportunities to build new skills.
For challenging pairs, I’ll often take these “Odd Couples” aside together, so they both know what’s been said, and I’ll share with them what I want them to essentially teach each other.
“Tamika, I really like the teamwork you demonstrated with your willingness to be the one who combined everyone’s ideas into the final presentation. I know nobody wanted to do that. For this project, I’m going to pair you with Javier. In other projects, he’s been taking on decision-making responsibilities. I want you to look for opportunities to build leadership and delegation skills, and I want Javier to practice communicating feedback and input while maybe letting the group go in a different direction than he might have chosen, and build his tolerance and resilience to put in great work for someone else’s idea. All of these skills are really important.”
When students can see your logic, even if it’s not perfect, you’ll get more buy-in and more engagement. Oftentimes, a couple months into the year, some of the more interpersonally enlightened students will even start making their own recommendations. “I think it would help if (soinso) was with someone who...” Sometimes I’ll take the recommendation and sometimes I won’t, but it’s almost always well-intended, and I always love that they’re looking at those different sorts of interactions with a growth mindset.
Step 5 – CHANGE TO PROMOTE GROWTH OBJECTIVES
Part of these intentional in groupings is to start out on the easiest skills and build up to the harder ones.
Once students have achieved success with one grouping, level them up to another. I think of it like resistance training. You want just enough rigor to be challenging, but not so frustrating that they stop engaging with the exercise. I don’t have a soup reference for this one, and won’t insult your intelligence by forcing one.
Step 6 – LET EVERYONE START WITH A CLEAN SLATE
This one goes well beyond group work, but it still applies. And the food metaphors write themselves.
Every teacher hears warnings about kids. “Watch out for those distractable boys.” “Keep an eye on those gossipy girls.” Even if those kids’ actions created those biases in the past, our entire job is to help children grow and change every single day. And I’ve found it’s a lot easier for everyone if all students get to start with a clean slate. It gives them solid ground on which to build skills.
Oftentimes I’ve seen children channel all of that energy they used to spend on distractions and petty politics into new interests, projects, relationships, and skills.
And it’s not just the “problemed” kids that benefit from this approach. The kid who coasted the year before might suddenly struggle with a new challenge, or the kid with one strong skill might be using that to compensate for another area that needs growth.
You giving them a clean slate helps them to escape the gravitational pull of old habits, and helps them move forward with you, toward a shared growth objective.
That’s all I’ve got at the moment.
So good luck creating successful groups, and I’d love to hear more about your experiences doing group-work during remote learning. This is new for everyone, and we’re all here to learn from one another. What have you noticed? What strategies are you finding valuable? Let me know!