“My mom said you are Russian Communist”, commented Audrey, one of the brightest 8th grade students in my physical science class as I handed back the classification of matter quizzes. The unorthodox teacher of Sicilian and Hungarian ancestry smiled and asked, “Why does your mom think that way?”. “It’s because you make us take tests in groups, and we only do as good as the group. And that’s not fair.” Hmmm. Audrey did have a point, but the unorthodox teacher was innovating, trying something different to engage more reluctant learners. Attempting to break the cliques he saw forming. He guessed the stakes were too high. Lesson learned. No more group tests.
An observant teacher will figure early in their career how important grouping is to teaching and learning. One can make or break a lesson, classroom culture, or a student’s self-efficacy by randomly grouping students without rhyme or reason. In my early attempts at grouping strategies, I did have heterogeneous groupings for many activities, including, on occasion, tests. My logic was the less successful students were underperforming, and putting them in a mixed abilities group would inspire them to work harder. The high-end student had more at stake, and would work doubly hard to do well and to motivate their group members. I found the end results to be mixed, and nixed that group testing strategy (after the communist comment) in lieu of other, less high stakes ones.
There’s a time to group students by ability, and a time for mixing groups up. I am a firm believer in heterogeneous classrooms, as long as the teacher has effective strategies for differentiating instruction. Students need to learn how to work with people of varied abilities, interests, ethnicity, and gender; and that must start long before they get into the workforce. Strong teachers can vary tasks, assessments, and products to challenge all students while keeping them in Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development–that narrow learning channel that makes the porridge not too hot (too rigorous), and not too cold (too easy), but just right. For proponents of homogeneous grouping, rest assured children will naturally group by ability and interest as they get older and enter middle and high school. Meanwhile, maintaining diversity within groups is essential for our students to graduate high school appreciative of the diverse range of peoples in this wonderful world and able to productively contribute as members of a democratic society.