Group Work vs. Working In Groups

I sit my kids in groups. But I don’t like “group work”.

No, that’s not a paradox. Sitting in groups isn’t “group work”.

Group work is an activity that falls under the larger rubric of “collaborative learning”, an organizing bubble to collect techniques and strategies like “Think Pair Share”, jigsawing, peer tutoring, and the like. The most fully-realized collaborative learning pedagogy is probably complex instruction, which was developed by Elizabeth Cohen. (That’s CI, not CISC.) To illustrate, CPM curriculum is based on complex instruction, whereas Everyday Math is not.

Complex Instruction had been in development for over 20 years, by the time it caught on  in the early 90s. Jeannie Oakes’ book Keeping Track, a broadside against any sort of ability grouping.  Oakes accused parents and schools of racial discrimination, an argument that found favor with many schools and teachers. Those schools that weren’t favorable to the argument faced lawsuits or the threat of one. A good chunk of the 90s was wasted as districts and states desperately tried to win her approval, and adopting the CI method was often adopted as the strategy. Fortunately, they all ultimately learned it was easier to disappoint her.1

Complex Instruction was also developed by tracking opponents, but opponents who nonetheless cared about learning. It’s explicitly designed to give schools a tool for the havoc that results when kids with a 3 to 8 year range in abilities are put in the same room, and thus was grabbed at by many schools back in the early 90s. Many CI concepts are also found in “reform math”—Jo Boaler’s Railside study on San Lorenzo High School was all about Complex Instruction. Carlos Cabana and Estelle Woodbury, who just co-authored Mathematics for Equity, a book on teaching math with Complex Instruction, both worked at San Lorenzo High School during Boaler’s study.

So start with the theory, articulated here by Rachel Lotan, the late Cohen’s key associate. You should watch this, or at least fast forward through parts, because Lotan clearly articulates the admirable goals of complex instruction minus the castigation, blame, and fuming ideology. Or, Complex Instruction’s major components in written form:


Both Lotan and the writeup offer much that is problematic. Reducing the ability range: not good. Creating busywork tasks (writing down questions, getting supplies) to let everyone feel “smart”: not good.

The write up mentions “status problems”. Lotan gives a great account of an absurdly pretentious term, “mitigating status” that is something every teacher in every classroom–no matter how they are seated—should take seriously. Lotan does a better job of explaining it, but since many won’t listen to the video, here’s a written version:

CI targets equity and, in particular, three ideas: first, that all students are smart; second, that issues of status—who is perceived as smart and who is not—interfere with students’ participation and learning; and third, that it is teachers’ responsibility to provide all students with opportunities to reveal how they are smart and develop/recognize new ways of being smart. The complex instruction model aims to “disrupt typical hierarchies of who is ‘smart’ and who is not” (Sapon-Shevin, 2004) by promoting equal status interactions amongst students so that they engage with tasks that have high cognitive demand within a cooperative learning environment.

(emphasis mine)

Ed schools wanting to hammer home how putting kids in groups doesn’t by itself address status usually show this video, but brace yourself. I tell myself that the ignored kid is probably a pest all the time, that everyone in the class is tired of his nonsense, that we’re just seeing a carefully culled selection to maximize the impact of exclusion and of course, race. It doesn’t matter. It’s still hard to watch.

And the video also reinforces the practical message that CI advocates are pushing, as opposed to the theory. In theory, status can be unearned by anyone of any gender or color. In practice, most CI advocates expect teachers to shut down white males. In theory, kids learn that everyone is smart. In practice, kids still know who’s “smart” and who’s not.

But then, CI advocates have their own frustrations. In theory, they’d put teachers in PD designed to indoctrinate them into realizing the error of their racist ways. In practice, teachers who haven’t already drunk the Koolaid either politely fake it until they can find an exit or get really annoyed when they’re called racists, as an excerpt for Mathematics for Equity makes clear:

Cite: Mathematics for Equity1

Complex Instruction done well is pretty interesting and often thought-provoking. Cathy Humphreys is a long-time advocate of “reform math” and complex instruction. She was at the center of one of those “rich educated parents” meltdowns that you saw over reform math back in the 90s. Humphreys represented the reform side, of course, and further endeared herself to parents by proposing to get rid of tracking at a Palo Alto, CA middle school. That went over like a water balloon down a balcony, she quit, worked as a math coach for a while, and then taught for years at a diverse high school in the Bay Area that had ended tracking. She also teaches at Stanford’s education program, according to her bio. Carlos Cabana, one of the co-authors of Mathematics for Equity, has also been teaching complex instruction for a long time; he’s one of the teachers at Railside, Jo Boaler’s pseudonym for San Lorenzo High School.

You can see both Humphreys and Cabana here at a website put together by the Noyce Foundation to promote the 8 essential practices. (Notice the link between “reform math” and supporting “common core”? As Tom Loveless says, Common Core is a “dog whistle” for reform math. Humphreys and Cabana are teaching high school math in the videos. You can also see Humphreys teaching at what I assume is the middle school that melted down. Humphreys and Cabana are much better demonstrations of complex instruction than the absurdly flashy promos that Jo Boaler puts out.

When I began teaching, I thought sitting kids in groups was absurd. I remember being pleased one of my mentoring teachers put kids in rows. But my primary student teaching assignment required me to sit kids in groups, as we were using CPM, a reform text that requires groups. I adjusted and liked it much more than I thought I would, especially when I took over the class and could group by ability. But my first year out, I happily put my desks in rows, thinking that groups were good, but now I could finally run my class the way I wanted.

Four weeks later, I put the kids in groups. It just….felt better. Year 2, I was teaching all-algebra, all the time, and thought rows would make more sense. The rows lasted 2 weeks and since around September of 2010, the only time my kids sit in rows is for tests.

I have….mixed feelings about CI. When promoted by the fanatic adherents, it’s both Orwellian and despicable. Teachers have to squelch kids who know the answer, force kids who understand the concept to explain, endlessly, to the kids who don’t, and then grade the kids who know the answer not on their demonstrated knowledge but on the success of their explanation and their willingness to do so. Teachers have to pretend to their students that asking a good question or taking notes is just as important as understanding the math (no, say the fanatic adherents, teachers aren’t pretending. These tasks are just as important!).

But while no student is ever going to believe that everyone is smart, “issues of status” do absolutely impact a students’ willingness to participate. Let the “smart kids” talk, everyone thinks, and sits back and zones out.

However, in my opinion and experience, CI methods often achieve exactly what they are defined to avoid, precisely because of their Orwellian insistence on ignoring reality. Kids know who is smart. They shut down if the smart kid is in their group, and go through the motions when the teacher walks by.

Ironically, I “mitigate status” by violating Complex Instruction’s most sacred tenet. Complex Instruction holds that student groups must be heterogeneous. Organization can’t be based on the rigid, academic version of “smart”. But I group my kids by ability as the most effective way of “mitigating status”.

I don’t want the weakest students in my class feeling as if any success short of an “A” is irrelevant. I also don’t want to try and convince them they’re just as “smart” as students who don’t struggle with the same material. That way, my students know that they can talk about math, what they need to know, what questions they have, knowing that other students probably have similar issues.

I don’t want to make it sound as if “mitigating status” is the only reason I sit kids in groups. Groups allow me to differentiate tasks slightly (or extensively) and enables me to quickly give help or new tasks. Groups allow kids to work together, discussing math, developing at their own speed with peers who have similar abilities.

But whether it’s status or some other curricular reason, when I sit them in groups, they start working and talking about math. They discover they are working with peers who won’t make them feel stupid, and they start to have discussions. Should we do this or this? They call me over to adjudicate. They try things. They check their notes, engage in all those excellent student behaviors. Not always, of course. But many times. They are less likely to sit passively and wait until I come by to personally tutor them through problems.

Moreover, because they are working with students of their own ability, they don’t feel alone or stupid. They work to improve. Maybe not great, maybe not good. But better.

Sitting kids in groups is not group work. But sitting kids in groups based on ability and giving them achievable tasks makes them more likely to work, and as math teachers often know, that’s no small thing.

1 I was thinking crap, I don’t want to have to look up the whole history of the ebb and flow of tracking and then went hey, Tom Loveless has to have something on this and by golly he does: The Resurgence of Ability Grouping and Persistence of Tracking covers the whole era, Oakes included. I would only quibble slightly with this sentence: Although the call to detrack was not accompanied by conventional incentives—the big budgets, regulatory regimes, and rewards and sanctions that draw the attention of policy analysts—detracking was, in a field famous for ignored or subverted policies, adopted by a large number of schools.

Loveless appears to forget the biggest incentive of all: lawsuit avoidance. Detracking lawsuits were the rage in this time period. Unlike new curriculum or teaching styles, detracking is achieved by executive fiat by district superintendents. No training, no carrots needed. Shazam! But leaving aside that minor quibble, a great piece documenting the move to and then the move away from heterogeneous classrooms (de-tracked).

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25 responses to “Group Work vs. Working In Groups

  • Stirner (@heresiologist)

    Do the groups stay stable over the course or the year, or do kids occasionally shift upwards and downwards in their groups?

    My guess would be the former, figuring that relative ability among members of the class becomes pretty apparent in the first few weeks.

    • educationrealist

      Pretty stable. However, sometimes kids really fall off over the course of a year. In some cases, they were cheating. In others, they were going over familiar stuff at the beginning and then fell off at the end. And some kids move from the very front to the middle, as they improve. By a month or so in, the positions are pretty stable–but then I rearrange sometimes based on productivity. I usually have more than four kids at each ability level.

  • Malcolm Unwell

    Can you expand on the common core being a dog whistle for reform math? There was a debate about that on Meet the Press. The Texas Gov pointed to the common core math videos on youtube, whereas Bill Bennett claimed those methods are not in the standards, etc.

    • educationrealist

      Tom Loveless conceived of the reference (it’s brilliant) and explains it. The original explanation is in this podcast, starting at minute 21 (I highly recommend the whole podcast). If you don’t like listening, you can just google Tom Loveless “Dog whistle” and look for the article on 6 myths that spanks Elizabeth Green.

      • Malcolm Unwell

        I do like listening, that was a very satisfying explanation, I have to say. Thanks for providing that link. This reform math is one of the most egregious aspect of the Common Core.

  • malcolmthecynic

    When I was doing my first batch of observation hours, there were two teachers using a sort of kind of version of group work. This was in elementary school, but I was impressed with it.

    The class was English. The different groups were reading different books based on ability level. They all had discussion questions. The teacher would go around to the different groups and help to facilitate the discussions. It all seemed very productive to me, and I liked the model. I hope to use something like it when I start teaching.

    • educationrealist

      Yes, I did this the year I taught English. We had 3 books to read, all of them written by and about Filipinos. One was a magical realism book, which I gave to my top readers. One was an interesting war story, which went to the middles. Both of these were set in ww2. The last book was set during the Cory Aquino (sp) era, and was a fairly simple romance, which went to my weakest kids. It worked really well.

  • DensityDuck

    The thing is, what you’re doing is basically just tracking. The intent of CI “groups” is to make the smart kids do the teacher’s work for them. Instead, you’re putting smart with smart, slow with slow.

    And there are always going to be people who say “oh well you just put all the Asian kids in smart, all the white kids in moderate, all the black kids in slow, and I ABSOLUTELY KNOW FOR A FACT that my son is not slow! What you’re doing is really just racism!”

    • educationrealist

      Well, you could track and not sit kids in groups. And I find that after algebra I, it’s incredibly difficult to teach more than one lesson per class, because they’re all learning the same new stuff. The difference is the speed in which they get the lesson done. And since I’m putting them in groups based on demonstrated performance in class, I don’t often get complaints. In fact, I don’t think I ever have. Most of the parents appreciate the fact that I’ve put their struggling kid up front for more attention. So far!

      • DensityDuck

        That’s great!

        In fact, maybe my perception that parents hate tracking is more about what I hear well-meaning antiracist zealots claim than anything else.

  • Lagertha

    My son suffered a lot from not having the “willingness to explain” his demonstrated knowledge especially, in math, in 3rd and 4th grade. He was 2 years ahead of his peers. Next, I foolishly enrolled him in a magnet school for the middle school years; partially, because our public school ended a pull-out math program (funding issues caused by an increase in special needs children) for the brightest in math; partially because a magnet school promised he could go further (“in-depth”) in math.

    During these next few years, the school’s pilot class (it was a new Magnet School based on Boston Latin) made every effort to dazzle suburban parents with their efforts for “differentiation” of curricula for the math-proficient/math-exceptional. The next year, several teachers (older, of course) mysteriously disappeared back to their home districts, and, a crop of very young, very mediocre (not all, but at least 3 of my sons) teachers arrived to teach 7th grade. The favorite Latin teacher was dismissed because parents complained he was “too hard.” Shortly thereafter, I found out that my son and some of his classmates, were basically self-educating themselves (math class) with “learning packets,” in a small group in the back of the room every day, while the 23-yr.-old teacher concentrated on the majority of the students who still could not understand long-division or percentiles, or were constantly fooling around. Mind you, this school kicked out disruptive students much slower than I expected, and, years later, my son told me how much time they sucked-up every day. Most of them were girls, too, which was odd to me at the time.

    I thought I should wait to pull him back to our district HS after 8th grade since I did not want to disrupt his new friendships and otherwise, rewarding relationships. At this point, I must also add that he had several friends in the clandestine “accelerated” groups who were URMs and other ethnic and international students, some from suburban towns as well to establish that this is not a race issue I am talking about. So, the modus operandi of the school was: not just politely ignore the white kids who were bright, but ignore ALL the bright kids.

    Honestly, he was uneasy prior to 6th grade to work in groups in math, especially. He didn’t mind group work in social studies, but he had either a tough time not giggling a lot, or being in one of his moods when he said little.

    My son had episodes of PTSD during those middle school years (now, gone, thank goodness) and I remember finally losing it, when his history teacher in 8th grade continued to antagonize him because of his unwillingness to constantly explain how he knew stuff: I called this guy out on the fact that he had no right to obsess over my son’s unwillingness to demonstrate his knowledge, explain everyday, his answers, and, that it was time for this teacher to teach his class on his own. And, actually, because the school was not expecting me to be so vociferous, they back-peddled like crazy and begged me to keep my son there throughout HS. But, by then I knew what a mistake I had made, and that he needed to finish his education at our local HS where the AP classes and PLTW classes would provide what he needed. And, to actually, have a teacher lead, not a photo-copied learning packet!

    He was just cynically welcomed at that magnet school because his (and other bright students) annual state assessment scores pulled up the mean score of the school so to never be labeled: failing. And, all the pseudo-tracking groups he was in, operated without any actual teacher really watching, instructing, and evaluating what they were doing, did nothing but create holes in his math knowledge which he quickly needed to resolve before he started Calculus. I still get angry when I think about that.

    As I said earlier, my son’s other “learning groups/pods/colors” were not much better since they were not split up by intelligence. It did nothing but alienate most of the boys (few girls) who just could not shut up, and whose names were constantly on the “wall of shame” of the teachers in 3rd-5th grade.

    I predict tracking is going to come back big, but probably in clandestine way, for a number of reasons. I will just list them: boys are starting to seriously, fall behind- tune out and drop out, also in college; the USA should be promoting/doing everything it can/funding the most intelligent students – treating them like a national resource; the countries and regions that compete with the US in the lucrative STEM fields don’t care about political correctness; income-inequality becomes worse when the “barely wealthy” all start paying for private & parochial schools-more poor children left behind, more bankrupt cities. A side note: one of my close friends and I joked about the need for AAction for smart boys who are really good at math! Or, that they should be automatically accepted to one of 3 programs in STEM (if their test scores qualify) out of their favored schools.

    My brothers and I benefited tremendously from tracking in the 60’s and 70’s…learning the English language in one year…going on to careers after Ivy Leagues and elite colleges in this country…with parents who were immigrants.

    Lastly, I find it ironic that when my son (another one) applied to the UCal system, that there was a box to check on the application if he intended to become a teacher. He felt torn not to check it to improve his acceptance to some of the most selective schools in the country but he was too honest a guy to have done that. My eldest son (one mentioned in the post) graduated from HS and is completing a degree at a large state U (great merit scholarship) majoring in Comp Sci…and he is on to Germany next to continue in a Comp Sci program. He has summer jobbed with Espn, a Dutch Co. involved with coding & apps; and next, either Google or Oracle…so, it all works out, but there were so many unnecessary tears along the way when he was just a boy. So, what’s the answer for future kids?: I don’t know but I am relieved that mine are “done with HS” next year. If tracking comes back, parents have to be the ones calling for it and sticking their necks out…nothing else will work.

  • momof4

    The justification for full inclusion seems to require belief that kids don’t know which kids are best/worst in different subjects and where they are on that spectrum. I have never found this to be so, with the exception of some kids with significant cognitive deficits. Kudos for a common-sense work-around ; common sense being notably lacking in so many aspects of ed policy and practice.

  • Mark Roulo

    “The justification for full inclusion seems to require belief that kids don’t know which kids are best/worst in different subjects and where they are on that spectrum.”

    Kids know (roughly) who the best/worst kids are in various subjects.
    And which kids are (roughly) best/worst at various sports.
    And who is popular and who is not.

    It is not uncommon to have kids miss by a bit (or more than a bit) in both directions about their *own* skills(*) … but kids seem to be pretty good at evaluating others.

    I don’t think that the full inclusion folks are quite so clueless as to not know this. I think they are trying to (a) change the *reality* so that the gap actually becomes smaller or goes away, (b) find areas in which the worse kids are better [so that they have a chance to be on top], and (c) change the implied *value* judgement that better is more worthy than worse.

    The fundamental problem with (b) is that usually the bright kids are the bright kids. Top of the class in reading and bottom in math are uncommon [I’m ignoring English Language Learners for this …] … I think. Good at one and great at the other, sure. And horrible at one, but okay at another also sure.

    And if we expand schooling to include art we might find some kids who are relatively poor at academic-y subjects like reading math but are quite talented artists. Same for sports. Or dance.

    But (especially at this age, I think) the academically talented kids are the talented kids. Just like in sports the kid who is your best $whatever is often your best (or close to best) $something else. As the kids get older they start to specialize, and I’d expect this academically, too, but I don’t expect the top kids in math be terrible readers. And it will be difficult to find academic subjects where some of the bottom scoring kids are actually near the top.

    For what it is worth, I think that (a) is VERY difficult and so, mostly, doesn’t happen. And (c) isn’t going to happen, either.


    (*) This is painfully obvious in sports where one keeps statistics. And parents can be just as blind about their own kids’ skills as the kids are about their own skills. Two seasons ago I was the statistics keeper for my sons baseball team. One set of parents *really* wanted to know (a) why their kid wasn’t pitching more and (b) wasn’t playing more in general. The manager asked me for the kid’s statistics to explain things. Relative to the rest of the team, the kid was 4th worst and had been given the 5th least amount of playing time. If he hadn’t missed a game, he would have solidly in the middle of the pack for playing time. And he was the absolute worst pitcher on the team by a huge margin.

    So the answer, I assume, was basically: “Your kid gets an average amount of playing time for the games that he makes. And we’ve given him opportunities to pitch, but when he pitches the other team scores 25 runs in every 6 inning game and we get crushed.”

    *Watching* the games should have been enough to realize this. But it wasn’t.

    My assumption is that something similar is at play with academic subjects where scoring is less clear-cut than it is with sports.

    • Lagertha

      yes, for years I witnessed helicopter parents obsessing about their child’s need to be considered the smartest (in primary school) or the best player (I was a soccer coach for decades) in town regardless of the facts. I am not sure where this delusion comes from, and, now that I am in my mid 50’s, I find the parents in their 30’s and 40’s even crazier than the baby boomers…parents I always thought were the most self-indulgent and self-righteous bunch before!

      Well, HS is the great equalizer and crushes the egos of parents and students alike who have been mislead into thinking that they are the most gifted, talented, athletic. Getting cut from teams, or not making them; and getting mediocre grades or failing an AP test is like bucket of water thrown in their faces. HS is a boot-camp for the psyche; you either survive, change and thrive…or you move into your parent’s basement.

      And, the college app process, the final “group activity” you have to survive, works out pretty well for the truly talented, creative, athletic. Numerous merit scholarships, automatic acceptance to state U’s, and acceptances to highly selective U’s are the benefits for the bright – everyone else of similar family financial background pays full freight, thus subsidizing the athletes, brainiacs, the artistically talented, the smart poor kids. HS also works well for the kids that follow their interests, are allowed by parents to follow their interests, and discover their talents in the process. The ability group idea was nice and quaint while it lasted in grade school, but you are on your own now….must survive by your wits and talents, like my father used to say.

      I think kids do find their “niche” in HS, regardless of academic ability, but parents should permit their children to venture into the realm that interests them and makes them happy….even if it implies that they will not gain entry to a selective university, or may not want to go to a traditional college at all, or follow a future professional direction parents are not keen on.

      All this talk about “improving education,” “closing the achievement gap,” with the myriad methods, ideas, curricular changes, etc., is basically about getting into a 4 year college. And, my idea is: push your kids as much as it is logical; do a fair bit of “home-schooling,” take a lot of road trips, prioritize recreation and play….basically, pay attention to your kids – by HS they don’t want to be under complete surveillance anymore, anyway.

      Forget the clean house, the nice cars, what the competitive neighbors think; not one of my kids remembers whether they had the latest, coveted cleats from a proper sporting goods store, whether my towels matched, whether tufts of dog hair drifted all over, including into their lunches…ok…they may remember that.

  • Roger Sweeny

    Interesting post. To shamelessly steal from Bill O’Reilly, I feel like your blog is a “no bullshit zone.”

    • educationrealist

      hahahaha. But I’m soooooo squishy. I wish Harry Webb were still around, because he hates group work. But it’s clear he’s being forced to do a particular pedagogy (not CI, from the sound of it).

  • anonymousse

    My kids are very young (K and below), and in private schools. They essentially use your method in every class. Grouped by ability in every small group they are in (groups of 4, in small classes of 16 or so).

    Seems an obvious way to teach or do school, frankly.

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