Flexible Grouping and Collaborative Learning: Moving from Obstacles Toward Solutions

By Karen L. Brown, M.Ed., and Dina Brulles, Ph.D., coauthors of A Teacher’s Guide to Flexible Grouping and Collaborative Learning: Form, Manage, Assess, and Differentiate in Groups

Flexible Grouping and Collaborative Learning: Moving from Obstacles Toward Solutions“Flexible grouping? Not for me, it’s too chaotic!”

Does this sound familiar? However, when classroom structures are put in place both in the classroom learning environment and the grouping of students, the stage is set for success for all learners!

Flexible grouping isn’t a single step; it’s a process. What happens before the group is established, the strategies used within the group, and determining when and how the grouping should be evaluated are all part of the process. With so much at stake for learners, taking the chaos out of flexible grouping is a must.

What do teachers need to know to flexibly group their students successfully? How can you approach flexible grouping with confidence? And how do you know that it’s working effectively and efficiently? Assessment is the first step. Determining where students fall within the standards to be addressed demands that assessment is focused and ongoing. Keeping groups fluid and targeted is part of the process. Ongoing assessment through data collection allows for fluid movement of students and informs structures in a learning environment that is differentiated and aligned to students’ needs.

Here are a few other questions and concerns we often hear from teachers.

“I’ve got the data. I know what needs to be addressed, and I can build my groups. Now what?”
This is where things often fall apart. The beauty of flexible grouping structures lies in their mechanics. After groups have been built, keeping the structures fluid yet manageable requires strategies, practice, and support. These elements create learning environments that use flexible grouping in a dynamic and beneficial way. Managing groups presents a challenge for many teachers. This is when the chaotic feeling can enter the picture.

“How does she do it—her groups run like clockwork! With me it’s hit or miss, mostly miss!”
These words have been shared by many who feel that managing flexible learning groups is their nemesis. Management of the grouping process takes explicit teaching. It requires that we teach students with fidelity expectations for noise control, student movement, material retrieval, and task completion.

“I have too much to teach to spend time explicitly teaching routines.”
This may also sound familiar. But the truth is that if you do not spend time explicitly teaching routines, you will battle them for the entire year. The time you invest in teaching routines comes back manyfold in student engagement and collaboration during the learning day. We suggest running those first groups devoid of strong content. Keep them simple to start. Remember, you are teaching students how to function within a flexibly grouped learning environment. Skimping on the explicit teaching of routines will come back to haunt you! One does not wake up on a Monday morning and decide to flexibly group the learners in the room. Upfront planning is essential to success so that the groups are formed and the management is in place before it’s time to teach.

“I get the grouping part, but how do I address these different levels?”
Fluid yet manageable structures require using an array of instructional strategies. Whatever the content, complexity is the key to differentiating to meet the needs of the varied learning groups you create. Simply putting students into groups isn’t enough—it is what is done within those groups that matters for the learner. However, planning separate lessons for each group isn’t feasible.

One good tool for aligning complexity to student need is the Continuum of Complexity. Developed by Bertie Kingore, the Continuum of Complexity identifies ten areas within the learning/teaching environment in which complexity can be adjusted. Each of the areas of the continuum provides a range of tasks, from less complex tasks to more complex ones. By aligning complexity to students’ needs, teachers can tweak a lesson or task without having to develop a completely new lesson for each group.

Using the Continuum, you can quickly and easily alter the complexity of tasks. For example, by changing the “Degree of Structure” provided to students, you can alter the complexity of the task for each group of learners. At the lowest level of complexity for this area, learners might use a provided graphic organizer with categories included to identify and organize information on the teacher-identified topic. Raising the complexity of this task is as simple as providing an organizer without the categories included, allowing students the opportunity to define the categories themselves. Want to increase the rigor yet again? Provide a learning group with a blank piece of paper and allow them to determine how they will organize the information. Three groups, three levels of complexity, three sets of learner needs addressed, all while working on the same topic or lesson.

Another useful tool is Norman Webb’s Depth of Knowledge Levels, which provide multiple entry points for learners to engage with content. Each level from 1 to 4 provides an increase in complexity for the learner. Within Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, each grouping of tasks reflects a different level of cognitive ability (or depth of knowledge) required to complete the task. Providing learners with tasks and learning opportunities at their level of complexity helps ensure that the appropriate level of challenge and rigor will be offered to engage each learner.

Here’s a question for you: Are your learners acquiring the skills you are presenting? What measures will you use?
As groups work through the tasks, the next step in the process is evaluation. Determining how you will know if your grouping is successful is vital. Assess first, and then the flexible grouping process begins again.

Karen BrownKaren L. Brown, M.Ed., is an education consultant and a gifted program mentor at Paradise Valley Unified School District in Arizona. She was previously an elementary school gifted specialist and a professor of gifted education at Arizona State University. Karen lives in Phoenix, Arizona.


Dina BrullesDina Brulles, Ph.D., is a school administrator and the gifted-education director for Arizona’s Paradise Valley Unified School District. Recognized for her expertise in creating and supervising schoolwide cluster grouping, she also assists districts throughout the United States in developing gifted-education programs, including those districts serving culturally and linguistically diverse gifted students. She holds a Ph.D. in gifted education and an M.S. in curriculum and instruction and serves on the faculty of the Graduate College of Education at Arizona State University. Prior to becoming an administrator, Dina was an elementary classroom teacher, a bilingual teacher, an ESL teacher, and a gifted-cluster teacher. She lives in Peoria, Arizona.

Flexible GroupingKaren and Dina are the authors of A Teacher’s Guide to Flexible Grouping and Collaborative Learning: Form, Manage, Assess, and Differentiate in Groups.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2018 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

This entry was posted in Teaching Strategies and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply