Derek has a Masters of Science degree in Teaching, Learning & Curriculum.
Types of Groups
Way back when, students would go to school and sit in rows for the entire day, listening to the teacher talk on and on about different subjects. During this time, students were responsible for sitting still, listening, and taking notes to learn. However, we have come a long way in our understanding of how students learn (thankfully).
These days, teachers are taught to use a variety of grouping strategies to help facilitate student learning. The two main groups you will find in a classroom are whole-class, in which the teacher teaches a topic to the whole class or students have a discussion as a whole group, or small-group, in which students work with each other or the teacher in smaller groups.
This lesson will explain when each of these grouping strategies is appropriate to use and detail some example activities for each type of group.
Those classrooms mentioned in the introduction were doing some stuff right, obviously. The idea of teaching to the whole class is still an important one. However, attempting to do so for the entire school day will most likely result in tears and frustration, and not just from the students. Whole-class instruction is best used in two broad situations: introducing a new concept or topic and facilitating a classroom discussion.
Small-group instruction is largely preferred for most of the school day, but sometimes you need to have your students all focused on one person or thing. For example, if your students had never heard the word 'verb' before, you wouldn't put them into a group where they had to work together to find verbs in a piece of text. You would first need to introduce the concept to the whole class, either through direct instruction, a video, or another form of media.
One area where whole-class instruction is especially useful is in modeling a new concept or procedure. Take, for example, during writing instruction. This week, your students are going to learn how to write a friendly letter. However, they have never before seen, read (maybe), or written a friendly letter. Through whole-class instruction, you can model a friendly letter, so your students can spend some time practicing independently or in small groups.
Facilitating class discussions is done through whole-class instruction, at least for the first couple times students are engaging in the process. It's important to use whole-class instruction for discussions, because you, as the teacher, need to make sure students understand the topic and are following the guidelines for a productive conversation. Perhaps after the students have had some practice, they can run the discussion themselves or even have smaller discussions in groups.
In an effective, productive learning environment, small-group instruction is where the meat of learning is done. Small-groups can be used for a variety of purposes and activities and can be divided into three sub-types. These are teacher-led small-groups, student-led small-groups, and independent small-groups (which sounds like an oxymoron, but isn't, I promise).
The first type of small-group instruction, teacher-led, is exactly what it sounds like. This is a small-group setting in which you can focus on a particular skill with a small amount of students, giving each student more individualized, differentiated instruction. An example of this would be to work on a specific reading comprehension skill in a small group before students practice that skill independently.
Student-led small-groups are likely where most of the intellectual heavy lifting will occur. In these groups, students work together to explore a concept or produce a piece of work. They do this with minimal teacher involvement, as this is when students are putting the skills you taught them into practice. For example, a student-led small group could focus on a key question that students can only answer using a variety of strategies and texts.
Independent small-groups are small-groups in which students are working independently on the same task (see, I promised it wasn't an oxymoron). These groups are used to help students practice skills independently. For example, students could read a short book and answer questions pertaining to a specific comprehension skill being taught that week.
Now that you got through the explanations of all the different types of small-group instruction, you get to find out the most exciting thing about them! All of these small-group activities can (and should) be happening at the same time! By having a classroom where students are working together, independently, or with you in small-groups, you are more likely to have your students intellectually engaged for a long period of a time. Go you!
Groups Throughout the Day
Now that you know when to use whole-class or small-group instruction, you can begin to think about how they will fit into your instructional time. It is always advisable to have students moving from different groups and activities throughout the day. For example, you might start as a whole group in the beginning of a class period, transition to some small-group work, rejoin as a whole class, and then work on an independent activity.
Whole-class and small-group instruction are the bread and butter of your instructional time. By knowing when you should have the whole class focused on one activity (whole-class instruction) or when to break students into groups to work on different things (small-group instruction), you can create a variety of engaging activities that will intellectually engage your students throughout the day.
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