Let us talk about shopping for shoes. I am not one of those people who meanders through shoe stores, struggling to narrow down my choices (no judgment for those who do—that is just not me). Rather, I am a very pragmatic shoe purchaser. I have specific kinds of shoes I favor, and I am clear about my shoes size. So when I head into a store, I get what I need and get out.
Now, let us imagine that on a given Saturday, I head into a shoe store and am greeted by an employee, who grabs me by the elbow and sits me down. She then reaches for her shoe sizer and proceeds to measure my right foot.
“Size 8,” she pronounces, at which point I nod to confirm. I know my size. She then stands up, heads into the back storage area, and emerges with a shoebox. Opening it up, she takes out the shoes and hands them to me. They are purple stilettos and not at all what I came in to buy.
“These aren’t what I need,” I assert. “I am looking for shoes that are black, leather, and durable. I need to be able to stand in them for up to twelve hours at a stretch. Those are the kind of shoes I need.”
“But everyone who is a size 8 gets these shoes. I can’t give you a different shoe than the size 8 customer sitting next to you,” the employee explains. “My plan was to give all size 8s the same shoe. It just makes it easier to manage.”
Ridiculous, right? When we buy shoes, we should definitely get what we need. We would never settle for shoes that did not address our personal context. A blanket approach, where every size 8 gets the same shoe would just be bad business.
So why do we sometimes settle for this exact approach in our schools? Students who need help writing a strong introduction to a narrative get a lesson on using quotation marks along with the rest of their peers. Students who need assistance doing metric conversions find themselves in the middle of a small-group lesson on perimeter.
What’s Wrong with Grouping?
Often, the root of the problem is a score or a number. We may assess our learners’ narrative writing and determine we have a number of students who are not yet proficient (they score “approaching” or a C or a 65%, for example). Wanting to respond to this gap, we offer a lesson on quotation marks because that seems to be what most of the learners struggled with. Except the learner for whom this was not the problem—he needed help with his introduction. Or maybe we spend the evening assessing math assignments and discover that a group of learners did not calculate perimeter correctly; they scored less-than-proficient (perhaps a Level 2 or a 70% or a B-). We assign these students to a group the next day and reteach calculating perimeter because their score indicates a lack of skill in this area. The problem is, one learner actually needed to step back even further and re-examine units of measurement and metric conversions. In both examples, we are giving all learners who have a certain score (like a size 8) the same thing—everyone is getting a purple stiletto.
Part of the challenge might exist in the way in which we speak about students. We may find ourselves saying things like: “My B Students” or “My Level 2s” or “Our Struggling Learners.” These types of statements become labels, and soon we may find ourselves generalizing about what each learner needs. We may continue: “My B Students cannot solve math problems to save their lives” or “My Level 2s cannot read” or “Our Struggling Learners don’t even know their math facts.” When we make statements like these, we may convince ourselves that the best way to respond to all B Students (or Level 2s or Struggling Learners) is to teach math computation, decoding, or multiplication facts. We aren’t exactly sure what the root cause of the problem is but most students who score in that way seem to need that kind of help.
Grouping Students by Need Instead
It is much more useful to stop grouping students by a number or score (or label) and start grouping them by need. After an assessment, we place those learners who need support with their introductions into a group for a short mini-lesson. We group those learners who specifically need to be retaught how to do metric conversions together. Perhaps, we may find Level 1, 2, and 3 students in the same group for a short period because they are all working to create better introductions. We might find that a learner who scored 60 percent on an assessment needs to be grouped with a student who scored 75 percent because they both need help with metric conversions. In other words, the number does not dictate the group; the need dictates the group.
This approach can actually save teachers a great deal of time during the formative assessment process. Instead of scoring every question and then trying to design instruction for the next day, a teacher could skip the scoring and analyze student assessments to identify the need that will be addressed for each learner tomorrow. At the bottom of an assessment, a keyword could indicate the need (and therefore, tomorrow’s flexible grouping). Students may simply find “Introduction” at the bottom of their narrative writing and know they will be working with all other learners who have that same word on the bottom of their papers.
When we group students by the need and not by a number, we are ensuring they have the exact shoe they need. Some may love to try on that purple stiletto because it meets a particular need, while others may need to focus on finding the right work boot. When our responses to assessment are designed to meet the needs of our learners, everyone leaves satisfied.