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Carolyn's Blog

Vol. 3, No. 1

Flexible Grouping: It’s More Than Just Moving Their Seats!

Flexible grouping is essential in the differentiated classroom. It is one of the basic teaching strategies for differentiating instruction. Individualizing for every student in every learning area every day is simply not possible or feasible. Therefore, one of the best and most practical ways to differentiate is through flexibly grouping students in a variety of ways, changing groupings as learning needs dictate. Even if you have a class designated as advanced, honors or basic, you still have differing abilities and need to use the flexible grouping strategy!

When using this strategy, you should think of any instructional group as variable, not permanent. Flexible grouping means planning for students to work together in a variety of ways and configurations depending on the classroom activity and desired learning outcomes. Look at assessment data, test results and student needs to determine the arrangement, size and students in your groups.

One key to flexible grouping is to make sure students aren't in the same group for every classroom activity. When this happens, students can easily become categorized into the 'smart group', the 'dumb kids', the 'nerds', etc. The danger in grouping without much flexibility is that students get into one group and stay there, even when the group is inappropriate for their needs. Sometimes it seems easier to keep students in the same groups for a long period of time. However, doing this usually isn't the best strategy for meeting individual needs.

Successfully grouping students so that learning is enhanced does not happen automatically! It takes planning and skill in good classroom management. Sometimes teachers try to group their students but don't plan the group process well enough. As a result, the grouping strategy doesn't work so they decide that whole group teaching is the only option. On the other hand, teachers who plan the implementation of flexible grouping carefully report successes in student achievement and an improvement in student attitude and motivation.

Consider the guidelines below as you think about how you can group your students for differentiated instruction.


Guidelines for Managing Flexible Groups
  1. Before grouping students for any activity, ask yourself: "What is the learning outcome of this activity and what is the best type of grouping to meet this learning outcome?" Then group your students accordingly.
  2. Use various types of assessment data to help you in forming groups.
  3. Use some kind of record-keeper so you and your students will know at a glance who is in each group for a particular activity. Use color coding, numbers, clothespins, index cards, checklists, charts or any other system that works for you.
  4. Give explicit instructions about the task each group is going to do before the groups begin to work.
  5. Classroom rules for group work should be written, posted, and understood by all.
  6. Model and practice procedures and routines for getting into groups so that movement becomes easy and automatic.
  7. Be clear about procedures and routines used during group work. These usually involve distributing, collecting and storing materials, moving chairs and/or desks for group work, getting help from the teacher, and monitoring/dealing with the noise level in the classroom.
  8. Don't give students too long at any given time to work in a group. The length of time partly depends on the ages of your students and grade level of your class. It also depends on the maturity and attention spans of your students.
  9. Have a specific procedure for stopping group work and returning to a whole class setting. The more your students practice and do this, the less confusion and disruption there will be.
  10. 1It is helpful for each student to have some type of Learning Log to record what he or she did in the group on a particular day. You may also want to use a group self-assessment instrument.

Follow these guidelines and add to them as you learn what works best for you. Remember, successful grouping takes thought and planning. It is much more than simply moving their seats!

 Coil, C. (2009). Flexible Grouping: It’s More Than Just Moving Their Seats!. E-Zine, Vol. 3, 1. www.carolyncoil.com.

For more information on the Flexible Grouping strategy, see Carolyn's book Successful Teaching in the Differentiated Classroom.