NRC/GT Revisits Grouping Beliefs and Practices

Summer 2004 Masthead

E. Jean Gubbins
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT

It is hard to believe that over a decade ago there were numerous debates about how to orchestrate students’ learning experiences. The debates started as educators and researchers questioned classroom practices that limited students’ progress or separated students into learning groups. Making decisions about students’ current abilities and future potentials is difficult at best. Students’ performances may not look like or sound like prior expectations. Does that mean that performance expectations based on student observations in the learning environment are incorrect? Does it mean that students’ motivation influences performance in such a way that expectations are not always accurate? These types of questions should always be part of any discussions about how to organize large or small groups for instructional purposes.

Sometimes, test performance was used to divide a classroom of students into one or more groups by content area or across content areas. Decisions may have been informed or arbitrary. If test performance was the only criterion, the placement may not have been appropriate. Other times, detailed information about students’ past and current educational performance was considered carefully and subgroups of students were formed for specific learning purposes. As educators, we are trained to recognize and understand individual differences such as the following:

  • prior knowledge or skill expertise
  • learning rate
  • cognitive ability
  • learning style preference
  • motivation, attitude, and effort
  • interest, strength, or talent (Burns et al., 2002)

Should these characteristics of students be part of any decision-making about grouping students for instructional purposes? The following three scenarios illustrate how students’ academic needs can be met:

Scenario 1: Prior Knowledge or Skills Expertise

Asking questions about students’ prior knowledge or expertise about a specific topic provides a wealth of information. Students’ familiarity with a topic varies considerably. Have you tried to assess students’ knowledge before you begin a new unit? K-L-W charts are a quick check of what students already know, what they would like to learn, and in what ways they can illustrate their learning and understanding. Students who are just starting a geology unit may be asked to respond to questions about rock formations, topographical changes due to earthquakes, or origins of predominant minerals in the local area. Completed K-L-W charts can be checked for breadth, depth, and accuracy of knowledge and understanding and provide direction for the unit. Some students will need basic information and others will be ready for advanced topics. One grade 5 student was a rock hound. Sara’s collection was gathered from family vacations. She carefully organized all of her treasures in boxes with appropriate labels about origins and locations. When she realized that we were starting a unit on geology, she wanted to share her treasures with others. She met with small groups of students and talked about her interest in geology. Her enthusiasm encouraged others to start their own local collections. Groups of students starting forming based on their specific geology interests. Membership in the groups changed, depending on students’ prior knowledge and developing levels of expertise.

Scenario 2: Learning Rate

Learning rate varies for each individual within and across content areas. Darren loved to read about astronomy and could not wait to find a new book or article that would unveil information about our universe, especially when more sophisticated tools probed distant planets and stars. He consumed astronomy books and mastered the content rapidly. It would not be possible or even appropriate to have this young person sit in a class focusing on the basics of the nine planets and their distances from the sun. How could this student be challenged in astronomy? One challenge was the opportunity to work with a local mentor who built his own telescopes and photographed the planets and stars. Astronomy as a topic of interest became Darren’s passion. He was so excited about the possibility that he, too, could build a telescope that he convinced several students to help with the process. This group of students read advanced books on how-to build telescopes and how-to photograph constellations. Their knowledge of astronomy became quite extensive.

Scenario 3: Motivation, Attitude, and Effort

Motivation, attitude, and effort are attributes that really influence student productivity. Most people realize that connecting students with content makes them want to learn. Learning takes on new directions as student engagement increases. A small group of students developed an interest in architecture after they attended a presentation by a guest speaker who had just completed a design for a local museum to house artifacts from the town’s history. The architect entered his design into competition and was selected as the top designer by all judges. He contacted his children’s school and asked if he could share his drawings and models with students. What a great opportunity for about 50 students! All were very attentive during his presentation, but a few were clearly responding in a different way. He organized students into small groups and gave them drawing paper, pencils, balsa wood, and glue. He asked them to think about creating a small building that would be erected near his museum and serve as a visitors’ information center. He encouraged students to sketch their ideas, share them with others, provide feedback, and then create a final drawing. Students worked quickly and could hardly wait to start building models. One group of students hovered over several drawings and checked in with everyone for feedback and then made revisions. They started building, but soon realized that they really needed extended time to complete their visitors’ center. They left the presentation with a commitment to keep working and checked in with their math teachers to see if they could use some of their class time to finish their projects. The teachers agreed and met with them to ensure they would apply some of the mathematical concepts they were currently learning about scale drawings and models.

Many educators have experienced similar learning events with the students and discussions about how they addressed students’ academic needs would be very productive.

Recently, three educators questioned grouping beliefs and practices and wanted to learn more about historical and contemporary perspectives. Their reflections and comments are the focus of this issue of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented Newsletter. Valerie Pare, Elizabeth Fogarty, and Gina Masso started their search for more information on separate paths. Valerie gathered information about past practices, analyzed terminology associated with dividing students into various groups based on preset criteria, studied varied practices, and then related it to her own experiences as a student teacher. Elizabeth Fogarty studied the learning profiles of her students and recognized that 4 students displayed various strengths that required curricular options. Her years of experience as a classroom teacher and advanced-level coursework helped her to understand the strengths and abilities of all of her students and provided her with knowledge, resources, and tools to address students’ academic diversity. Gina Masso spent 1 year in an internship focusing on collaborative teaching in mathematics. In working with primary students, some of the students displayed advanced levels of knowledge and concepts. She learned that even with documented evidence about the students’ abilities, other factors had to be considered in designing curricular options.

Each of these authors/educators studied the research and practices surrounding the debates about grouping students for instructional purposes. They made decisions about what and how to teach students and kept asking questions about issues surrounding decisions to group students for instructional purposes. As teachers, they watched and listened to students’ reactions to curricular options.

As they reviewed existing research, it was evident that there very different viewpoints. In this issue of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented Newsletter, Pare, Fogarty, and Masso share their knowledge about grouping practices and provide perspectives on how they interpreted prior research and practices.

Burns, D. E., Gubbins, E. J., Reis, S. M., Westberg, K. L., Dinnocenti, S. T., & Tieso, C. L. (2002). Applying gifted education pedagogy in the general education classroom: Professional development module (PDM0209). Storrs: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.


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