Disaster-Free Flexible Grouping

Disaster-Free Flexible Grouping

By Taru Nieminen            December 7, 2016



Independence, Responsibility, and Cooperation

Flexible grouping creates independence, responsibility, and cooperation. It lets different learning styles coexist and lets different personalities appreciate one another.

Groups can be used to build classroom community, to give overview of a new concept, to organize and create a project, share background knowledge, discuss different perspectives, respond to peer tasks (e.g. writing, projects, goals), introduce and teach a specific skill, etc.

The Colleague You Don’t Like

There is bound to be a co-worker you’d rather not work with, for example at an in-service. But no matter what, you’re a professional, and that person would never know you’d rather spend hours at the mall shopping for your mother-in-law’s poodle than in a group with her. That’s just it, you are a professional. You act civil, you listen to everyone, give your input, you make it work, accept your role in the group.

This is the story I tell students when we embark in to the  jungles of group work. Every time, the inevitable question is: “So, Ms. N., who is the person you don’t like?” And I tell them I can’t say. And that they’ll never guess. Because I’m a professional.

There’s bound to be one student who will come to you as soon as you assign them to a group and tells you that there’s no way he or she can work with so and so. How do you combat that?

Exaggerate, Mime, Act Out Charades

I’ve had the most fun by demonstrating what not to do in a group. Exaggerate, mime, use charades. Ask a student before-hand to be your partner and act out the first paragraph of this article the way it’s not supposed to happen.

Act out the guidelines and expectations; be silly, act weird, show them how to act by “acting out,” rousing the 2-year old toddler with a temper tantrum. Guaranteed laughs. Even from stoic middle school students. Ok, at least they will chuckle or give a soundbite.

Guidelines and Expectations Let You Avoid Disaster

Before starting groups of any kind, you need to make sure students know the guidelines and expectations. Otherwise you’re in for an unpleasant surprise.

  1. Tell students that there will be times when they will be working with a student they might not like. At the same time, inform that they will sometimes be able to work with their best friend either.
  2. Demonstrate how the movement will happen in the classroom – individuals as well as groups.
  3. Define the role of each person in the group. Make and give job cards for each group member. For example, even at a Toastmasters meeting- a speaking group for adults, there are job cards- anyone can do the job written on the card. They are laminated and include bulleted and numbered tasks. Yes, this will take some preparation, but it is so worth it! Oh, here’s a fantastic example from dailyteachingtools.com. Here’s a another type specific to literature, but with a little work, you’d be able to convert them specifically to your subject.
  4. Assign an area for each group. Have this thought out before you start. Really.
  5. One of the most important in my book: give each group a rubric on how the group work will be scored. You might consider adding peer review. *
  6. Establish rules about when the group can ask for your help.
  7. Set time limits for tasks, i.e. let students know what they should be able to accomplish in the timeframe given, e.g. this lesson, by tomorrow, by next week, etc.


Flexible grouping should be temporary, and hour, a week, and at the very maximum, 6 weeks. Usually a month is as long as you want to keep a group together. Especially in middle school. Tempers run high and best friends can become enemies in a half an hour flat.

Use the student’s talents to their advantage, but don’t let Mary be the timekeeper each time. Students need to learn different roles within a group. This could be part of the evaluation process. You could make an Excel sheet to monitor the group activities and who is in which role each hour/week/month.

Types of Groups

  • Teacher led and student led
  • Teacher selected and student selected

If you are leading a small group or individual group, then of course you need to make sure the rest of the class is engaged.

Teacher led

Student led

Small group Paired
Whole class Collaborative
Individual Performance/end-result based

Variety of Ways for Student-Led Groups

Sample Activity

Short Explanation

Interview Q & A Students ask each other questions, record the answers, and then give a report when asked. Questions can be either teacher or student created.
Think, Pair, Share After a concept, detail, or skill is introduced in a whole-class setting, students are given think time, then pair up, and share their ideas.
Q & A Cards: Ask, Exchange, Repeat Students are given question cards related to the subject or concept. Students move around the room and quiz another student. When both students are done asking and answering, they exchange cards and repeat the Q & A with another student. Repeat w/ 3-4 students.
Four Corners Divide the class into four groups; easily done with each student reciting a number in succession from 1-4. Give each number a corner to go to after you state the task. Variation is to have the question/task in written form at each corner.


Fluidity Takes Time

Remember that fluid flexible grouping won’t happen in a day. Sometimes not even a week. Check out and make notes of what worked and what didn’t. Even with all the guidelines here, searching the internet, and following your school’s curriculum, there will be pitfalls; some will seem as deep as the crater at Mt. St. Helens, some can be “filled in” in a flash. Modify the grouping to fit your style and your classroom.

End Game

Push your students beyond their current level of knowledge to the next with appropriate challenges. You’ll discover very quickly whether Alia or Bob will rise to the challenge. Most will, because they crave the intellectual contest as much within themselves as with their peers.

*These are just examples, yours do not have to be as extensive. Modify to fit your style.

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