As part of an AGQTP funded project (2008), I worked as a beginning English teacher with my teacher-mentor to develop group work strategies that focussed on Element 5 of the NSW Institute of Teachers’ professional standards. Element 5 focuses on how teachers “create and maintain safe and challenging learning environments through the use of classroom management skills”. The AGQTP project was supported by a range of school professional learning networks, in particular by the school mentoring program, and Gifted and Talented education (GaTe) research groups.
For my GaTe Action Research Project, I chose to investigate how incorporating various grouping strategies in the class impacted on students’ task commitment andlevel of creativity.
I also explored the potential for online learning to support group work in the classroom.
One focus of our Gifted and Talented education (GaTe) seminars has been on how to provide learning environments and experiences for the students in our classes (who already arrive in the class with “above average general ability”) that allow them to fulfil all areas of giftedness.
Renzulli identifies three traits of giftedness:
- above average though not necessarily superior general ability;
- high level of task commitment or intrinsic motivation;
- and creativity
In order to promote all of the traits of giftedness, as defined by Renzulli, we must ensure that students in our selective and ‘G’ classes are participating in classes that are highly engaging to encourage intrinsic motivation. It also means ensuring that students are encouraged to think creatively; to ‘think outside the square’.
The NSW DET Gifted and Talented Policy suggests that teachers may use a variety of teaching and learning strategies to support gifted and talented students.
Programs can be implemented that incorporate:
- various grouping strategies
- accelerated progression
- extension activities within and across classes
- contract work, with students negotiating the components of the contract
- open-ended questions, activities and assignments
- online learning
- hypothesis testing and problem solving
- individual research and investigation
- opportunities for peer tutoring and assessment
- mentors with specific expertise.
(NSW DET, 2004)
It’s been interesting to watch how my year 9 students have responded to different grouping strategies this year. So far I have used three different grouping methods:
- Term 1: Friendship groups (groups designed a magazine cover)
- Term 2: Special interest groups (students selected a novel to study and worked with others who had selected the same novel)
- Term 3: Mixed-ability groups (based on pre-testing of student knowledge of familiarity with video games)
What has been most interesting to me has been observing how the the structure and content of the lessons/tasks influences the success of the grouping strategy…
Students worked in these groups to design and publish a cover for their own invented magazine. The magazines they created had to resist gender stereotypes in both the content and the visual design (e.g. no pink for girls!)
Advantages: Students worked well as a team because they knew each other well and already understood how each other worked; groups were generally comfortable contacting each other online or by phone after school to work on the assignment; students felt a responsibilty to ‘pull their weight’ in the group to live up to friends’ expectations.
Disadvantages: Student creativity was restricted to an extent as friend groups had a tendancy to share common interests and opinions – this placed limits on their capacity to generate ‘new’ ideas.
Task impact on grouping method: Friendship grouping worked quite well with this task. Because the task required students to work quickly to develop a coherent product, the familiarity between the group members helped them to reach decisions quickly .
Special interest grouping
After the entire class studied George Orwell’s Animal Farm, students were asked to select a second novel to study for the remainder of the term – Utopia (Moore), Brave New World (Huxley), 1984 (Orwell)or The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood). Students then worked in groups with other students that had chosen the same novel to produce a group presentation.
Advantages: Intrinsic motivation was high as students were studying an area of interest to them; group members that didn’t know each other well could still start with something in common; students felt more ownership of the content as they had chosen it.
Disadvantages: I only encountered organisational issues – not all students got their first choice, and still the groups had uneven numbers.
Task impact on grouping method: With this grouping method there is the chance that students will choose the same area of interest just to stay in a group with friends, which could undercut the potential of the group design to foster intrinsic, task related motivation. I avoided this by scaffolding students’ choices – before chosing a novel they had to read the blurbs privately, write a short personal evaluation of the novel, and then rank them in order of preference. This all happened a week BEFORE students were asked to pick a novel, and before they had time to confer on their choices. This task also worked well because the assignment was flexible enough to accomodate different sized groups – this was important as students were (understandably) discouraged when faced with the possibility of having to study their third or fourth choice.
Mixed Ability Groups
I decided to use mixed-ability groups for my unit on Video Games because I imagined that group work might run into problems if ‘gamers’ all grouped together leaving ‘non-gamers’ to work through systems and concepts they were unfamiliar with. I had also observed how insular the group of boys in the class had become when they worked together earlier in the year and wanted to split them up! I created FOUR groups of 4-5 students, mixing the groups based on pre-testing in knowledge of video games, and on observed ability in actual group work (students who were observed earlier to have problems communicating with other group members were split up).
Advantages: Provided a great opportunity for peer mentoring; high level of teacher control over group dynamics.
Disadvantages: Extra work in scaffolding student communication to ensure group cohesion; students with lower ability have less to contribute to the group.
Task impact on grouping method: This grouping method was less successful for my class, and this can be seen as a result of the lack of structure in their group tasks. Students worked in groups to play and analyse videogames and to create wiki pages based on their findings. These tasks needed to contain clearer direction for each student to have a specific role in the analysis phase. Students also would have been better off rotating laptop time so that all students in the group could use a laptop – laptop sharing caused the groups to fracture into insular pairs. One advantage of using a wiki to record student work was that I could closely monitor individual student contribution, and this enhanced group equity to an extent.