Group Work: Safety In Numbers

group work, math, peer mentoring, collaborative learning

As a lazy child, group learning was a great opportunity for me to outsource homework and school projects to my other, more productive, peers. However, when I started a new school I was placed with girls who were lazier and higher up the social ladder than me, and I was stuck making a model ancient Greek house out of a shoebox while they chatted about their weekend plans.

Grouping students can be uncomfortable for teachers. If you stick friends with each other than you are at risk of extending lunch hour, and if you are too focused on blending peer groups you might create an uncomfortable working environment.

A recent blog on Edutopia is about a teacher who was preoccupied with mixing students of various levels and abilities together. His logic was that the poorer students could learn from those who excelled. That was until one gifted student approached the teacher and subtly criticized his grouping practice. She found that she was doing all of the hard work for the rest of her team. The teacher then tried making groups out of people who were at similar levels to each other. This way seemed to work better for him and group participation surged.

Grouping students in a specific manner only works when you have specific goals in mind. But keeping groups random has a lot of benefits, having kids work with other kids just for the sake of it is actually very important. Pupils who usually drown in a large classroom, get the opportunity to speak up. Children find themselves practicing active rather than passive learning and students may also get a chance to engage with someone who sits on the other side of the cafeteria to them.

My favourite aspect of group learning is that you are privy to someone else’s thought process. You get to watch the way several people tackle an identical idea and pick up a new way of doing something. Everyone has something to offer, even if you get to witness the art of delegation.

So if you are a teacher and are stuck with how to group people try these methods:

  1. If you are after a group of four you can hand out a deck of playing cards to the class – shuffled of course. Kings, queens, and Aces can go together. Just make sure that you adjust the deck so that it matches your class size.
  2. Use an app. Team Shake, does the trick. Put the class names into the app and voila.
  3. You can try to group kids by eye color, if that has a whiff of eugenics, you can also put them in groups based on their likes and dislikes, such as their favourite pizza flavour (although any kid who likes anchovies will be on his own).
  4. If you can get your hands on a few three, or four-piece, puzzles, then break them up and place them upside down. Kids with pieces that fit together will form a group.
  5. If all else fails, just draw names out of a hat.

If you are in fact a teacher who is reading this could you share some of your tips when it comes to dividing up the classroom?


Marina Gomer is a journalist and mother of one.  She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.