3 flexible grouping challenges (and how to navigate them)



Flexible grouping is an important part of effective teaching but, in my experience, it is not overly prevalent in many classrooms and is a source of constant debate amongst those who espouse its benefits. Such debates typically begin with the question, “What does it actually mean?”. 

This is slightly disconcerting but also necessary. Most arguments in education eventually boil down to semantics, so getting the definition out of the way early is a smart move for anyone who truly seeks to debate the merits of such an approach and avoid the philosophical gymnastics required to navigate a bonafide EduTwitter spat…I mean debate.

Blogs written on behalf of the Education Endowment Foundation discuss flexible grouping in terms of small groups that can be set up to adapt lesson content as part of an approach to teaching which is adaptive in nature. This is important because the EEF contributes to the design (and, in a way, the implementation) of the Early Career Framework and National Professional Qualifications. Therefore, when documents in England, and in all likelihood further afield, refer to flexible grouping, it is this definition to which they refer. 

The trouble is, the phrase ‘flexible grouping’ is a composition of two reasonably familiar terms and when we think we understand the component words in a phrase well enough to surmise the meaning when they are combined without digging deeper, things start to fall apart. 

On some level, flexible grouping has been chosen as an alternative to fixed-group differentiation and, although the evidence pertaining to streaming/setting is far from conclusive, it has come to represent a shorthand for pre-teaching, forensic responsive teaching, and the creation of space for carefully chosen pupils to focus on essential elements of a given lesson.

Or at least that is the intention. If we are not careful, flexible grouping, far from supporting those in our care, can have a negative impact on pupils, teachers and leaders alike.

1: Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?

Flexible grouping is not an excuse to make classroom organisation more complicated than it needs to be. Managing a class of students is complex at the best of times, if we add unnecessary layers of complication then it becomes an almost unmanageable task. When this is the case, our natural inclination is to default to a more manageable, but potentially less effective, model of classroom management. The level of burden associated with implementation is directly related to the likelihood of effective execution. The higher the burden, the lower the chance of successful, consistent implementation. 

With flexible grouping, it simply cannot be the case that students are moving around constantly within our lessons. Yes, there should be flexibility but an unwieldy cacophony of constantly mobile students will do nothing to promote learning and will greatly reduce both the attention and time available for more important tasks. 

How we choose to implement flexible grouping will be fed by the general routines of the classroom and they must complement each other in such a way that adding a few sub-routines to the wider expectations of the classroom presents a low level of burden to those responsible for establishing them as behavioural norms.

When thinking about flexible grouping, if you close your eyes and imagine physically active pupils lurching from one group to the next at the drop of a hat, open your eyes and think a little more carefully about how that will actually manifest. 

2: Working 5 to 5

If misinterpreted, flexible grouping can add significantly to teacher workload. We know that we are at something of a workload precipice, and have been for quite some time, so it is very much in our best interests to understand exactly how our expectations impact those charged with the learning of our students. 

Important Definition: 

Chilli-Challenge: The preparation of three or four tasks of varying difficulty for each lesson, during which pupils choose the task to complete based on their interpretation of their confidence and competence levels.

More frequently than we would hope, options such as “Chilli-Challenges” are used to fill the time of those not in immediate receipt of teacher attention. Not only are humans notoriously bad at self-reporting (meaning pupils are very unlikely to choose the correct level of challenge) but there is a multiplicative effect on the amount of preparation the teacher must do in advance of their lessons. The amount of time teachers spend on finding tasks is staggering as it stands already. Asking them to waste time that could be spent thinking about more important aspects of their role on generating superficial tasks is something to be avoided at all costs. 

It is very unlikely that every child will get equal teacher attention in a given week but we don’t need to shoehorn ineffective practices into our pedagogical toolkits when the likelihood is that the attention they get will even out across the academic year. Ultimately, some pupils need more attention and support than others but there are ways to ensure that all pupils are successful in school without wasting time on redundant tasks. 

3: Don’t, You, Forget about Me

Like almost everything introduced into a school eco-system, if flexible grouping doesn’t have senior leader support then the chances of effective implementation are slim. The issues outlined above manifest, in the main, because of the decisions of senior leaders and we must be careful to avoid them at all costs. The teachers hearing about flexible grouping on a regular basis are likely to be our least experienced colleagues and if support is not in place they will default, as is our nature, to less effective, but more easily implemented, practices. 

Therefore, it is essential that the routines of the class are supported by the routines and expectations of the school. Pupils should arrive in class aware of the expectations on input, output and behaviour for learning. Models and demonstrations should be available to teachers so they have a firm grasp of how flexible grouping might look in their classrooms. And most importantly, everyone should expect that the collective capacity will develop over time, as teachers gain more curricular and pedagogical knowledge. Flexible grouping is not a quick fix, but a powerful strategy that requires careful planning, monitoring and evaluation. It requires nothing less than effective leadership. 

Thinking Deeply about Flexible Grouping

I believe there are four key component parts about which we must think deeply when we try to implement flexible grouping:

  • Understand what our questions are designed to elicit 
  • Prepare additional questions of a similar ilk
  • Take in as much information as possible
  • Absorb and respond to the information we take in 

And to each of these, we will turn our attention over the next few weeks. Whether you are utilising mini-whiteboards or some form of digital technology to gather information from your students, supported by a high-quality textbook or are planning from scratch, and everything in between, there is a lot to unpack within each of the core facets of an actionable model of flexible grouping. For now, my parting advice is to encourage you, if not already, to spend some time thinking about whether flexible grouping is utilised within your school/classroom, what your ideal might be, and to consider the rationale upon which your ideal is based. The issues outlined above are easily avoided when we align our vision for the classroom with the needs of the students and their teachers and make sensible decisions based on the available evidence about teacher efficacy. If the broader decisions are out of our hands, then we need only focus on our vision for flexible grouping and whether the opportunity cost aligns with a healthy work-life balance. 

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