Wednesday, March 5, 2014

In Praise of Ilana Horn and Assigned Groups

The Incredible Ilana Horn writes,
Skeptics might protest linking participation and status. “Some students are just shy,” someone might say. That is true. Likewise, students learning English often go through a silent period or may be self-conscious of their accents. Our goal with reluctant speakers is to design ways for them to comfortably participate more than they are perhaps naturally inclined to do. Strategies such as small-group talk first or individual think time may help build the confidence of shy or nervous speakers. 
I was a skeptic until, like, two weeks ago. Here's my learning story, which I'm posting for the benefit of myself and others who wish to teach people who are like myself:

1. At first, I was skeptical of assigning groups for group work because I didn't see much bang for my buck in planning groups ahead of time, and I really didn't like making up groups in class. My kids worked in small groups anyway, or they worked alone. They had choice, and how many things in class do kids get to have control over? Definitely: don't assign groups.

2. Two weeks ago, I was working with some Shell Center materials (oh my god their stuff is good) and they recommended giving kids a sort of activity before the activity for assessment reasons, and then assigning groups based on interesting combinations of approaches to that initial activity. I had a bit of planning time, so I figured I'd try something new and give assigned groups a shot.

3. It went great. I saw completely different student dynamics in the small assigned groups then I saw in the groups that kids usually chose for themselves.

4. Then I remembered that Fawn had blogged about using a random group assigner, and that I had once seen a Henri Picciotto piece on group work. I remembered that the Incredible Ilana Horn wrote a book on it. So I decided that this was finally time for me to try this again and figure this out.

5. I started randomly assigning groups in class all the time. When I wanted kids to go over an assignment, like a quiz or homework, instead of marking it I assigned random groups. Or I'd set kids up with a set of individual work, and then bring them together to discuss in assigned groups. Or I'd break out of a group conversation into assigned groups to make progress on some debate. This helped the pacing of class tremendously. I also really liked maximizing the number of kids who were talking.

But that's not what was most striking. Since kids weren't working with the people right next to their seats, their regular social patterns were broken. The girls were talking with the boys. The quiet kids were talking with the most talkative and eloquent folks. Weak students were with stronger students.

I thought this was amazing. Consider my 4th Grade class, where the girls and the boys never choose to work in mixed-gender groups. How does that social dynamic play out over a year? If boys and girls never talk math with each other, the boys can end up totally clueless about the skills and talents of the girls in the class. The girls never end up figuring out how their abilities stack up to the boys'. And now play this out not over just one year, but a whole school life.

Swap in gender for any other significant student quality -- outspokenness, race, ability level -- and I saw the same sort of productive behavior emerge in assigned small groups. By lowering the costs of participation we give low-status kids a chance to speak up, and high-status kids a chance to hear them.

Do the kids like it? Not always. It's uncomfortable. If it was their choice then...well, they'd choose the groups that they usually choose. But they get it. (Also, on a practical level, there's no polite way to object to an assigned group without dissing the folks you've been assigned to. So there hasn't been much protest, despite the discomfort.)

So now we have individual work, whole-group conversations, you-choose group work, and I-choose group work to switch between in class, and it's making a huge change in the way my classes feel.


  1. Michael,

    I am so glad that random grouping has yielded such powerful shifts in your classroom. This is awesome!

    My next challenge for you is to figure out how different kids are genuinely, mathematically smart. Then you can use that to shift the status dynamics even more.


    1. "My next challenge for you is to figure out how different kids are genuinely, mathematically smart."

      I'm not certain what you mean by this. Maybe you mean that different kids might have different mathematical strengths -- that Billy might ask great questions while Amy has strong intuitions about motion and Chana is deep and reflective and so on and so on? And, of course, some kids are none of these things and that's OK too?

      I should probably buy your book to get the fuller picture of what you're saying.

  2. I'm looking forward to trying this out, Michael. I think having an online tool that does it instantly will make it practicable. I'm going to use