Visibly Random Groupings: Why an Initially Terrifying Prospect Turns Out to be My Favorite Way to Promote Equity

Summer is often a time of reflection and change. We teachers make our New Year’s resolutions in August, not January. So as you think about the coming school year, and what small steps (or giant leaps) you’d like to take to do things differently, let me make an easy suggestion that changed my life this past school year: group students randomly.

Wait! Don’t go! Before you stop reading because, “that’s just crazy!” or “that’ll never work in my classroom” or “what about these ten problems with implementing random groupings that I immediately thought of?!”, allow me the time to argue that random groupings (1) are good for students, and (2) make your life easier. And yes, I promise to address your concerns about why this is the craziest thing you’ve ever heard of.

Good for Students: How Random Groupings Send Subtle Yet Important Messages that Promote Equity

In my opinion, the single most important reason to group students randomly is the fact that when we don’t, students will try to read into the groups we assign and the roles they should fill within those groups.

If we group homogeneously, they might think, “Yep, I’m in the dumb kids’ group. No surprises there. I’ll just pray I can make it through this class without looking like an idiot,” or alternatively, “I’m in the smart kids’ group! That means my ideas matter the most when we discuss things as a class.”

If we group heterogeneously, they might think, “I’m the smart one in this group; these other kids are not going to be able to keep up with my genius or help me solve this problem,” or alternatively, “I’m clearly the dumb one here. I’ll just copy down whatever the smart kid says.”

Even if students aren’t conscientiously narrating these thoughts to themselves, they are certainly internalizing the subtext of the group they have been placed in and their “role” with that group.

Furthermore, these unproductive thoughts are often filtered through the lens of race and gender and any other way that students can feel marginalized in a math class. Whether we like it or not, students carry the baggage of cultural norms and biases, social expectations, and status into the classroom.

Random groupings therefore send a powerful message: everyone is equal, everyone’s ideas are valid and deserve to be heard.

Before learning about random groupings, I used to make groups by trying to “spread out” the strong and weak students, i.e. I’d make sure that my strong students weren’t too clustered, and that the weaker students always had someone who could support them. While I did this with the best of intentions, this approach is problematic:

  • I was assigning “strong” and “weak” classifications to students based on prior achievement. Despite the cumulative nature of much of mathematics, a quality math task will invite innovative and creative ideas that can come from anyone, even a student who struggles with some basic skills.
  • There are many ways to be “smart” in math class. Most people tend to assume that being “good at math” means being able to do basic arithmetic computations quickly and accurately. While that’s a great skill to have, most mathematicians (myself included!) will readily admit to struggling with that particular skill. When we assign groups based on prior achievement, we’re only validating a narrow definition of what constitutes being “good at math”.

By grouping students randomly, we send the message that there are multiple ways to be smart at math (seeing patterns and connections, drawing a graph or diagram to visualize a problem, communicating ideas clearly, etc.).

Obviously your students won’t fully internalize the idea that there are lots of ways to be smart at math simply from random groupings alone; this message needs to be explicitly reinforced many times over. But random groupings are a powerful way to put your money where your mouth is. This can start to chip away at the status barriers preventing full participation and engagement.

If we truly believe that all students can be successful in mathematics (and if you don’t, why on earth are you teaching?), then visibly random groupings are the only way to organize the classroom.

For more about why random groupings are essential, listen to this tumblr post from Ilana Horn, check out her blog Teaching Math Culture, or read her book, Strength in Numbers: Collaborative Learning in Secondary Mathematics.

But What About…? Calming Your Fears

I will be honest: even after reading enough to be convinced that visibly random groupings are a good idea in theory, I was terrified of actually implementing them. What if the random groups create nightmarish social dynamics? What if all the weak kids get put into one group and completely flounder?

To that second concern, I’ll note that if a bunch of “low” students end up in one group together, oftentimes they will realize that there are no “strong” students to hide behind, and they will rise to the challenge. And if they don’t, then at least they’ll be concentrated and you can spend extra time with their group!

But back to the broader concern that randomization can create bad social dynamics. This is obviously true, and you don’t have to live with those bad dynamics. Supporting randomized groupings doesn’t mean you have to blindly accept a group that you know won’t work together well. The key is that you change groups based on social, not academic considerations. For example, you could say, “I know you two always get chatty together, so I’m going to switch you to another group.” Or, as was the case in one of my classes last year, if two students have associations with rival gangs, they should definitely not be seated together!

As long as the groups are visibly randomized from an academic standpoint, with any conscientious tweaks occurring for purely social reasons, your classroom will still get the positive benefits outlined above.

Logistics

So how can you actually implement this in your classroom? Ilana Horn shows an example of a chart you could hang in your room with different group roles. Simply shuffle cards with students’ names on them and place them randomly into the slots. Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 11.00.15 PM

That’s way more sophisticated than what I did! At the beginning of this past school year, I was so nervous about random groupings that I decided to start out simple: I only did random groupings for a few specific, group-work tasks. I would visibly shuffle cards with students’ names, then put them down four at a time on desks to create the groups, saying the students’ names as I went.

Later in the year, I realized that random groupings are actually the greatest thing ever and I started using randomization to create my general seating chart. I would shuffle the cards, then have a student read them to me in order as I wrote students’ names on a blank seating chart. I would then allow students to silently raise their hands to request to move closer to the front if they had bad eyesight and had been placed too far back.

This whole process took about five minutes, and created a visibly randomized seating chart with student input. I found it was generally best to do this at the end of class and then have the new seating chart posted as students came in the next day.

Good for Teachers: How Random Groupings are Actually the Greatest Thing Ever from a Selfish Point of View

I hope that I’ve convinced you that random groupings are both good for your students and logistically feasible. But now for the selfish part: they will make your life as a teacher significantly easier.

Creating seating charts randomly has freed up soooooo much time! I cannot even begin to describe how much time I wasted two years ago trying in vain to balance the delicate Rubik’s Cube of student personalities and abilities, only to have each new seating chart seem even worse than the previous one. By making my seating charts randomly, I essentially gave myself hours of extra time to devote to lesson planning and grading.

Additionally, students used to feel personally insulted if I made a new seating chart that separated them from their friends, and they would lobby incessantly for specific seating arrangements. When students get a new seat that they don’t like but understand that it arose from a visibly randomized process, they complain less and for a shorter amount of time.

I also think that using randomization has made me a better teacher. It’s a great reminder to view all students as having the potential to make meaningful contributions, and it helps me avoid deficit thinking. When I began using random groupings this past school year, I found myself expecting more from the students who struggled the most, and as a result, they rose to higher challenges. (Mostly. Ish. Depending on the kid. This is education after all; silver bullets don’t exist!)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, random groupings are a good reminder that we can’t always tell who is going to struggle with a given task and who is going to need support. I had a student in my Geometry class this past year who demonstrated very early on that she was incredibly strong with the procedural skill of solving algebraic equations and was also quite adept at correctly setting up equations from geometric situations. I therefore thought of this student as one of my “stronger” students. When we started working on proofs, a lot of kids needed support and feedback, and I found myself being spread quite thin around the room. I ended up not checking in on this student (or the group she was working with) because I thought that she was one of my highest flyers and would be fine without me. It wasn’t until I read her proofs that I saw she was grasping at straws trying to form a coherent and logical argument.

I had let my preconceived notions of this student’s intelligence get in the way of recognizing that she needed more guidance and support to complete the task at hand. Random groupings can be a helpful reminder that we can’t necessarily judge future success from prior achievement in a subject as complicated, disparate, and interconnected as mathematics.

Concluding Thoughts

If you’re not already using random groupings, I hope you’ll consider this for next school year. It has the advantage of being good for students’ conceptions of themselves and others in math class, and also making your life easier. Furthermore, this is a fairly easy and straightforward new strategy to implement.

If you already use random groups, what have your experiences been? Do you have other ways that you put students into groups randomly? Please share!

Will random groupings magically solve all status issues in your classroom? Of course not. But it is one powerful piece of the puzzle that can help all students recognize that they have valuable ideas to contribute to the class.

Thoughts? Questions? Concerns? Please let me know!

 

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16 thoughts on “Visibly Random Groupings: Why an Initially Terrifying Prospect Turns Out to be My Favorite Way to Promote Equity

  1. Hey Joe – I used visibly random groupings as well this year; I started it in the fall and stopped about halfway through the term, but in the spring, I stuck to it through the end. I used an even lower tech method than you did – I took a deck of cards, removed the 9’s on up, and handed them out as the kids walked in each day. Was there some swapping to be with friends? I’m sure there was. But for the most part, I saw kids working together who otherwise might never speak to each other. And it made things all the sweeter for the students when I would give them ‘a day off’ and let them choose their own seats.

    In my classes that were behaviorally more challenging, I felt that I needed more control over the table arrangements and assigned seating. But ultimately, the assigned groups really didn’t work any better. Lesson learned.

    It was a little more challenging to learn students’ names at the start of the term by mixing them up every day, but I used name tents (https://hermathness.wordpress.com/2014/09/04/go/), which added another means by which to communicate with the kids early in the term.

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    1. I like the cards idea. Did you have cards taped to each desk so they would match their card to a desk when they came in?

      I agree that changing desks every day would get a bit overwhelming. I also think it’s nice for kids to get a chance to sit with the same people for a little while so that they can make friends and (hopefully) develop some good group dynamics and trust. Ilana Horn recommends switching random groups every two weeks or so.

      You could still use the playing cards, but just not change every day.

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      1. I actually ‘dealt’ the cards as I greeted them at the door. If I had classroom prep to attend to, I would give the cards to the first student in line to hand out – the drama/power struggle was always interesting to observe. I haven’t completely thought through how I will use VRGs this year, although I do intend to continue.

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    1. Potentially yes, given the right conditions. But I’m not talking about low-level street rivalries; I’m talking about affiliations with MS-13 and Calle 18. When you’re dealing with local affiliates of transnational gangs, it’s a much bigger issue than can be overcome in just one classroom.

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  2. Thanks for sharing, Joe! I started this last year and definitely noticed some positives along the lines of what you were saying. My biggest struggle with this was choosing tasks that are actually group-worthy. Too often I over- or under-estimated (more often under) the difficulty of a task. This would usually end up in someone knowing what to do straight out and finishing without the need of the group.

    Another thing I didn’t do that I’m going to do this year is to assign group roles. I didn’t do that and it created a bit of confusion for students. I’m hoping this makes a big difference in helping students get going on work and have a place to start when on a group task.

    Do you have thoughts on this?

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    1. Hey Matt!

      Thanks for commenting! I definitely agree that group-worthy tasks are a must for quality group work (although if your day-to-day seating chart is arranged in pairs, for example, you can still assign the pairs randomly).

      I’ve always admired teachers who teach group work behaviors around specific, delineated group roles, but I’ve never been able to make this meaningful or real in my classroom.

      My one piece of advice would be to make sure you have them practice the behavior of the group roles BEFORE they have to work together to solve a tough math problem. Have some sort of fun group work activity that’s light on content where they practice these group roles, debrief the experience as a class, then follow it up the next day with a rich, meaty, group-worthy math problem.

      I think my biggest struggle with this is that I’ve never been really satisfied with the different definitions and responsibilities of various group roles that I’ve found (facilitator, time keeper, materials manager, etc.). If I’m not bought into the roles, obviously the kids won’t be either.

      Let me know if you find/create group roles that you really like!

      Thanks,

      Joe

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      1. Yeah buy in for yourself is important, huh? I’ve only got the roles as suggested in Strength in Numbers, as you’ve suggested. Are you doing this this year, too?

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      2. To be honest, by the time I read Strength in Numbers I think I had already given up on assigning roles for group work, so I didn’t pay too much attention to the roles Ilana Horn talks about. Maybe I should reread and give it another shot.

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  3. This makes me super happy, my friend! I’m headed back to PCMI this summer again, and I hope I get lucky enough to have a partner like you again!

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    1. Thanks, Benjamin! I wish I could’ve gone this year, but I’m moving cross-country this summer & have too much going on in life to swing it. I know you will have an amazing time, and I’m sure you will create an awesome presentation. Can’t wait to see what you come up with!!

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