Thursday, April 9, 2015

Don't hate on the heterogeneous here, at least not yet

Education folks love group work. 

Trust me, they do.  Everything is about group work – how it’s the future of education, how teachers need to teach “real-world skills, with collaboration and group work,” because that’s the way students will have to get along in the working world of tomorrow. 

If you want to see instructional specialists having near-orgasms (and you generally don’t, for obvious reasons), show them a lesson plan that involves group work.  Their eyes will roll back in their heads and they’ll start patting you on the back aggressively.  You should then move away quickly.

But the most important part of group work isn’t that you shove students together and say, “Work as a group,” although you may end up doing that.  The important thing is how those groups are put together, which brings us to our next buzzword in the A-Z blog challengeheterogeneous grouping.

Obviously, it doesn’t help to have one group of smart kids and one group of the less smart kids, even though those groups will gravitate towards each other.  The high achievers don’t want to work with the low achievers because they’ll have to do everything.  The low achievers don’t want to work with the high achievers because the high achievers will actually expect them to work, and they’d rather waste time with their like-minded friends. 

A teacher must create groups of mixed ability, in order to teach students about blame, frustration and taking undeserved credit.  So here’s how you should organize the group so it’s truly "heterogeneous."  

Let’s say each group should have four people.  Novice teachers might tell students to move into groups of four, but that won’t work.  Students will pick their friends and Luke, the boy who tries to copy everyone’s work, will be left without a group because no one wants him.  You can try having the students number off by fours, but they’ll quickly try to move to still be with their friends.  Or you can put everyone’s name into a jar and pull out names one by one to form groups, but this is probably the worst method for a teacher.  You end up reading names students made up, like “G-Dog” or “Justin Weiner.” 

So new teachers, just MAKE THE GROUPS UP BEFORE CLASS.  Trust me, prearranged groups will save you time and energy.  You can then ignore the whining that follows. 

Each group should be as follows: One good student, one low-achieving student, one jokester, and one angry, disaffected loner.  The jokester can be replaced with another type, which is “student new to the class.”  But it’s important to have the disaffected student on board, as his entire job is to announce that “this is dumb” and “this isn’t going to work.”  Meanwhile, the good student will keep saying “let’s get to work,” while the low student either looks around blankly and doesn’t help, or joins in with the loner in badmouthing the activity, even though the loner will make it clear that he doesn’t need any help in his role.

Generally the joker or the loner will eventually do enough to get their grade while the new student or good student will remark angrily that no one else “is even doing anything.”  At some point, they will summon you to point out the lack of other student contributions.  You should make vague threats about how this is a big grade and then say something like “you all need to work as a team!” Don't forget to wander around the room, chastising off-task students.  Plus, students need to know they have only 15 minutes left to finish.


If you’re lucky, half of the groups will actually produce something, and the other half will end up blaming their other teammates for their lack of productivity.  Now you know that you've taught the class the true meaning of group work if the students leave the class, proclaiming loudly, “I HATE group work!”  This is called a “life lesson,” a buzzword we’ll get to later.