4 Reasons Why Flexible Grouping is a Powerful Force for Learning

4 Reasons Why Flexible Grouping is a Powerful Force for Learning

One of the benefits of getting interim assessment data from MAP is that teachers can use the information to create flexible groups to support student learning needs. But are these groups a good idea? Here are four reasons I believe that they are.

1. Flexible grouping builds understanding from various perspectives

Collaborative groups do more than provide peer support for struggling learners. Collaboration stimulates conversation, team work, and provides the foundational experiences for the development of Theory of Mind. During the last decade we have become more aware of the impact that Theory of Mind has on social interaction and background knowledge, both of which are critical for college and career preparation. The development of Theory of Mind impacts reading comprehension and critical conceptual knowledge that is necessary for the understanding and application of academic content. By having students work in flexible collaborative groups, they broaden their schematic representation of the topic that they are discussing, thus formulate a broader lens from which they are able to analyze new material in novel situations. In other words, they begin to see the topic from, not only their viewpoint, but also from the view of the others with which they are learning. This experience, within itself, develops a Theory of Mind that allows students to increase their background knowledge regarding a given topic and thus, their ability to solve novel problems by thinking critically about that topic.

2. Flexible grouping promotes communication

When children work in collaborative groups they learn to communicate with others. Effective communication means learning to listen, as well as, speak. By listening to and interacting with their peers, children begin to understand content from various perspectives; they understand how people with different experiences, look at and solve, different problems. Children that work in flexible collaborative groups build the foundation for moving from one Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) to another. They do this by incorporating the knowledge they gain from peer interaction into their own knowledge base.

3. Flexible grouping promotes the building of background knowledge

Having background knowledge means that children have a basic understanding of the large concepts that are contained within a set of academic skills. They may need a bit of scaffolding in order to put the knowledge that they already have with new content, but they are ready to learn the new content. Without background knowledge, it’s harder for students to build new knowledge and understanding. New knowledge obtained without the appropriate foundational skills is often knowledge that is not “useable”. In other words, the child cannot connect the new content to existing content, therefore they do not use the new knowledge for solving problems; they do not know how it fits the big picture.   When children work in collaborative groups, they are using “learned intelligence” that they gain from their peers to add to their background knowledge. For example: children share stories from their experience about visiting or living on a farm during an activity that is designed to compare and contrast farm life with city life. Children that have never had a farm experience, can now begin to assimilate this knowledge into their own background. This allows them to gain new skills more rapidly and more thoroughly; it allows them to integrate the new content with their existing knowledge. Working in the ZPD allows children to gain new knowledge that they can effectively use to act on new and novel situations.

4. Flexible grouping impacts success in the workforce

The ability to apply existing knowledge to new and novel situations is one of the key skills that employers say they are looking for in their workforce; they want their employees to be able to think for themselves and solve problems when they arise. As children collaborate, they learn to work as a team. This means that they are working with others to solve a common problem. They are thinking critically about the content they are exploring and they are finding novel solutions to the problem. Teachers can use flexible collaborative groupings to help students learn content knowledge from their peers and as they do so, they begin to learn how to learn on their own. Flexible collaborative groupings are therefore extremely powerful instructional tools.

Using MAP data and the Learning Continuum to determine a child’s ZPD, is the first step in creating this chain reaction.

Tweet your thoughts on flexible groups, to support student learning needs, to us at @NWEA, or share them on our Facebook page. We want to hear your ideas and experiences!

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