Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Divided We Fall - Arranging children into groups

There are several ways of dividing a class of children into smaller groups. It is fun, but time consuming, to have them arrange themselves in alphabetical or age order. If you believe in star signs, and opt for the age thing, you may wish to mix them up a bit afterwards to avoid having all the leading Leos in one group and the recalcitrant Capricorns in another.

My own favourite, because wherever possible I begin work in a circle, is to give each child a number. If I want five groups, the person on my left is number 1, next to them is number 2 and so on round. The child next to number 5 is number 1 again. Once numbered, all the ones gather together in their group, as do the twos, threes and so on. I like this because it's fast, transparently arbitrary, breaks up subversive cliques and mixes boys with girls.

The other day I found myself working with eleven Year 5 children (aged 9/10). It was my first time in the school and we had 45 minutes to produce some music for a performance based on Creation myths. They nearly all had formal instrumental lessons and most were obviously very bright. Being young enough to 'play' they took to improvising very well. I would give each sub-group a title and they would play a convincing 'Sprinkling Stars' or 'Building a Mountain'.

Twice I split them into groups, using the method described above. The third time, when we chose groups for the imminent performance, they asked if they could choose their own groups. I was dubious about this but they had worked very well so, after a brief discussion about the potential pitfalls, I let them get on with it. This gave me a strong group of three and an able and reasonably cohesive group of four. It also left four less able and apparently low status children who were not a group. None of the others wanted to work with them and they didn't especially want to work with each other. Fortunately this was a selective school (albeit on religious grounds) in a well-to-do area and the 'less able' students would be shining beacons in many other establishments. The four remaining children accepted the result of the process to which they had agreed and coalesced into a functioning group. Each group produced wonderful music in the final showing to their peers and younger children, much to my relief.

Most of the schools I work in tend to be in less favoured areas and the proportion of socially able, high achieving children is lower. I am not in a hurry to repeat the 'sort yourself into groups' experiment in any of them. The fact is that able children, and I mean able both academically and socially, want to work with each other. They are usually capable of cooperating in ways less able children simply can't. But they are also capable of leading and inspiring the less able and can derive benefit from this. If there is a small amount of dumbing down from their perspective it is greatly outweighed by the overall rise in quality. And ultimately, in music at least, the session has to work for the whole class for it to work at all.


  1. Hi J,
    let me quote you: "If there is a small amount of dumbing down from their perspective it is greatly outweighed by the overall rise in quality."

    The above can be good or bad, depending on your perspective. We are all keen for as many students to do as well as possible. But at what cost? Inflicting a dumbing down on the brightest members of a class or group so that the less bright (dimmer?) students can benefit is forcing the brighter ones to make a sacrifice that they might not choose to make.

    I believe that the brightest as well as the dimmest have a right to be educated to the very limits of their capabilities. Any dumbing down is harmful to them.

    And where do you stop the dumbing down?

  2. I think it might be time for a debate.

    'Academic' achievement is not the only mark of success. The 'product' is really, really not the only point to a lesson, the 'process' is pretty often the most valuable part. Learning to 'team' play with a variety of people is as good for high achievers as it is for low achievers.

    There will always be a few people in society that will excel in the 'products' of academia. Their success is very unlikely to be inhibited by learning to work with low achievers and furthermore their social skills will be enhanced. Also, much study has been done into emotions and their impact on learning. Get everyone feeling emotionally comfortable and secure through lessons that work on social skills etc, and everyone is far more likely to achieve academically.

    Most children in schools do not fall into the 'high achievers' group - why should the mass' needs be seen as less worthy of addressing that the few high achievers?

    For a society where less crap happens and more collective responsibility is taken, social skills, self esteem preservation (those poor low achievers will have been knocked time and time again anyway by - in effect - rejections of this sort) healthy interactions, team playing etc...are crucial AND do, in the case of many kids, need to be taught.

    This group work, will also be just a fraction of the overal education kids receive. Other lessons will focus on pushing children more individually and academically by their work being differentiated.

    The affiliation and sense of achievement a group of children can feel by working collectively on a task (process), I would say, is the most valuable part in a lesson like J described. Groups that choose themselves, already have some affiliation. New groups make new affiliations and this goes on to contribute to the larger group's (class') overall healthy interactions, therefore emotional security, and therefore academic learning.

  3. OK, let the debate commence :)

    I agree with everything in your first paragraph. In the field of music, for example, I gain from playing with people better than me, in the same way that people worse than me gain from playing with me, I hope. But we have fun together in both cases.

    I agree with your second paragraph, but I think that it misses the point. I agree that "...their success is very unlikely to be inhibited by learning to work with low achievers..." but the issue arises when high achievers are obliged to work always, or almost always with lower achievers. I believe that the achievements of high achievers will certainly be inhibited if they are obliged to work all, or most of the time, with low achievers.

    I do not believe that the mass' needs are less worthy than those of high achievers. I said "I believe that the brightest as well as the dimmest have a right to be educated to the very limits of their capabilities" i.e. low achievers as well as high achievers.

    The post from J defended a dumbing down of a lesson to improve the benefits to the mass at the expense of the more able. My comment was a intended to state that this is not always desirable. OK, actually I implied that it's always undesirable. I take that back.

    Your comment about other lessons pushing children individually would seem to bear this out. In some situations it is desirable that more able students group together to the exclusion of less able, and in those situations, I believe they can achieve more.

    The question is, where do you stop the dumbing down? A part of one music lesson per term? All of them? English lessons? Maths? Were do you stop? And who decides?

  4. There is very little 'dumbing down' in schools. Jonathan probably used this term without meaning it as the focus of his point.

    I also notice you have not acknowledged the importance of emotional literacy and the part it plays in successful learning (there is much research in this...even Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a starting place to appreciate this factor)

    Lessons in school are either pushing children academically or they have more of a process focus - such as social skills, team work focus, etc, like I said before, etc - both of which are extremely important in a holistic education. There are currently far more of the former lessons in school. Unless a child is exceptionally, exceptionally bright their academic talents are very unlikely not to be acknowledged and challenged. In fact, as you know, in my opinion, state school focuses far too much on acedemia for ALL pupils - academically bright or not. So I would argue - there really is not enough 'dumbing down' - which is not really dumbing down. If a child is academically bright but socially challenged - the dumbing down would be caused by these children in social 'process' lessons.

    I remember teaching such children - children that were very intelligent but nobody wanted to work with them.

  5. With respect to these particular musicians, I think they all get one-to-one tuition on their chosen instrument. Interestingly, the group of more able kids did produce the best work in the final performance. However, at the workshop stage, when the children were randomly mixed, all the work was very good.

    On a more general level, we all have to live together in the world after school. The consequences of exclusion of social groups have never been very pretty, whichever camp you find yourself in.

    I'd like to expand on the dumbing down bit but I'm off to see Sherlock Holmes at the cinema. Just for an intellectual workout, you understand.

  6. Your argument is hard to fault, Molly, and the brilliant, in whatever field, will always find a way to fulfil their potential. However, a balance needs to be struck. I worked in a school last year where, in a class of 20 seven year olds only four would have been condsidered 'average' or above anywhere else. (That's just my opinion but I did see these kids intensively for a while.) I felt there were age-appropriate group activities that these kids were denied because their teacher knew better than to attempt them.

    I remain convinced that arbitrary group seledction is the best way. Can anyone suggest the best way to explain this convincingly to a bunch of nine-year-olds in terms they'll understand?

  7. OK, lots of points here, some practical, some philosophical. Let me first nail my philosophical colours to the mast, and ask that you do the same. Then at least we'll know how different or not our starting points are.

    Firstly, I do think that the redistribution of wealth from the well-off(taxes) to the poor (social welfare) is a good thing. On the other hand I don't think that, in schools, trading off the academic development of the bright for the benefit of the less bright is a good thing. I'd like to know where you stand on those two points, Molly.

    I fully accept that a child has many different directions for development: sporting, academic, emotional, social. And a child may have to trade off one for another: a gifted footballer might sacrifice academic studies to develop footballing skills, for example. A linguist might give up science studies at some point. But I don't believe that the footballer should be obliged to reduce his or her development of footballing skills so that less able players can improve more.

    Similarly a child might choose to trade social skills against academic performance, but I don't believe that he or she should be obliged to, any more than the footballer should be obliged to reduce his footballing skills in order to study something else.

    You claim that there is very little dumbing down in schools, but I have witnessed an extraordinary dumbing down of the British educational system during my life. The Economist noted last week that despite a raft of official statistics showing ever-improving exam results, Britain is falling behind in international tables of performance, and the IMF observed last year that Britain does not have the skilled workeforce it needs to compete in modern global commerce.

    It may well be that in large groups of students of mixed ability, the best average results are obtained from arbitrary group selection. But I don't believe that large groups of mixed ability are a good starting point. Smaller groups of similar ability are better, and are similarly likely to offer opportunities for emotional and social development.

    I have to stop now, cos I have to try to get my cat into a box for transport. If I don't post for a few days you'll know the cat won.

  8. Correction: Sorry, I was in a hurry. Sometimes our footballer needs to be forced to study something else. Any parent forcing their child to stay in to do homework instead of go to a party is trading off social development for academic development. Happens all the time.

    What I don't think is that our footballer should be forced to reduce his footballing achievements for someone else's benefit.

  9. There is so much here. Mostly my non-musical experience of school education comprises memories of childhood and a parent’s perspective of the schools my children attend. Working in schools I do get flavours but not enough to venture an informed opinion. I agree we need specialists and people who excel at their chosen field but I think such people are better for a slightly broader education.

    Historically we have educated, and chosen not to educate, children in many ways and for many reasons. There have been times in our history, for example, when teaching workers to read and write was considered dangerous and subversive by those in power. The mistake at the moment is a failure to step back and think about what we want from education and then how best to get it. I am convinced that for teaching music to all-comers in school classes of thirty, a number that is itself an historical accident, the set-up is wholly inappropriate. Trying to do this in one room is absurd unless the curriculum excludes any practical work. It persists because music is considered unimportant and so unworthy of greater resources. Of course I’m biased and similar arguments could be made in other subject areas.

    Is school about education or containment? And if it’s both, in what proportions? What are we educating for?

    Cogitator, you say you like to play music with people better than you because you learn from them. Less able children learn best from more able children. Do you think your able comrades benefit from reinforcing their own skills and knowledge by passing them to you. Or are you holding them back? And how do you feel about playing with less able players. How about you, Molly, when you’re wielding that fiddle?

  10. School is still geared up mostly for clever kids and those bright kids get their neurones stimulated academically all the time. They will not 'fail' for a few sessions working with less able kids at the age of ten.

    Some days kids will have bright group only experiences, other days, mixed ability group experiences. Diverse experiences from which different lessons can be learned. As the original point that made this debate, I feel there's not really a debate.

    It's actually the low achievers that could do with more attention in our schools - so they don't feel continuously like failures...ultimately reducing crime, stopping teenage pregnancies...etc. i.e. bright kids seem always to be 'on track' to me, attain success regularly and more are more likely to achieve life goals (well they actually have them, for a start)'s the others that need more input. Our old fashioned education system is slowly being re-vamped...but it is slow.

    I don't think schools are dumbing down. I remember looking at My mum's O-Level papers (1950s). All about factual acquisition and how well one could regurgitate it. She would say (when she looked up from her Daily Mail) that schools have dumbed down because they let children use calculators and they don't learn anything by rote anymore (they do learn some things like that actually).

    Problem solving, creativity, improving motivation to learn, skill acquisition, learning different processes of learning, reflective practice, self assessment, goal setting, skills of accessing information, social skills etc are at least the aims education is moving towards now. These suit every child more - not just the bright kids.

    There are teams of educationalists trying to fine tune what 21st century education should be about and they appear to be coming to the right conclusions in my opinion. Life in this next century will throw up challenges that we could not even imagine (there will be new jobs that we could not even imagine). Education will need to change if our kids are going to be equiped to cope with that unknown future. To deal with the unknown, one has to be first and foremost good at assessing the situation, creative, good at problem solving and not easily put off. So a bit of being thrown into a group you would not choose, with less able in line with this!!!!

    I think the changes in education are exciting. But, of course, change won't happen overnight.

  11. Re-read and reflected and sincerely hope Codgi didn't think I was calling him 'Daily Mail' - far from it!!!! His debate is always a pleasant challenge. The DM is fully my mother's domain and I use her as an example of how many hold very reactionary views about education...good old days etc, which are so ill informed it - it drives me nuts!!!

  12. Sorry not to have made any contribution to this debate during the last week, but I have been away.

    I agree with Jonathan that large classes are really not ideal for teaching music.

    I don't think that Molly will ever persuade me that school has not dumbed down during my lifetime, so we'll have to agree to differ on this one. Certainly I don't recall my education being about regurgitating facts; I remember frequently being challenged by problems that seemed at first to bear little relation to what I had been learning, and that demanded intensive thought.

    How can I possibly argue against Molly's list: Problem solving, creativity, improving motivation to learn, etc. But all this problem-solving ability has to be built on something: If you don't know how a car works, you can't fix it.

    I gave this a bit of thought, relating it to my personal view. Do I believe that emotional intelligence and social skills are important for success? Yes, almost always. Would I have done better in my career if I had traded a class of my degree for better skills in the above? Almost certainly. Two classes? Probably not.

    (Dinner time: I'll reply to J's questions a bit later)

  13. To answer J's questions: When I play with people better than me, I don't think my colleagues reinforce many of their skills by passing them on to me; I think rather I hold them back. I think that the best that more able players get out of playing together is an improved ability to listen, and perhaps recover from mistakes. If there is a teacher present, many aspects of musicality can be taught, but perhaps not to the same level as if everyone were at the same standard.

    But socialising with better players sometimes leads to hints and tips being passed on, techniques transferred, interpretations reviewed, etc. Unfortunately however, I have found that most discussions of interpretation boil down to a battle of wills rather than an exchange of ideas, so I take them with a pinch of salt.

    I think the inverse pretty much applies when I play with people less able then me.

  14. Hey Molly, I never for one moment would have believed you were describing me as "Daily Mail" :)

    Not like you at all, and I doubt I would have been offended anyway. I've been called far worse!

  15. I remember a piece of advice I was given by a musician back when I could hardly read music and spent my time playing by ear in rock bands, where the riffs chord progressions are simple enough to fake it convincingly. It was 'always play with people better than yourself'. Obviously not everyone can do this. In practice those better than me get fed up after a while. Conversely I find playing with people worse feels like a busman's holiday after a while. The crunch comes when I realise that the last time I painstakingly explained how to do something I regard as pretty basic I was at least being paid. But without others there isn't the joy of social music so a trade-off must be made.

    Playing with my betters has definitely improved my own playing. The fear being dumped again makes me raise my game.

  16. Maybe in schools, it is, or should be, the rôle of the teacher, rather than other students (in whatever subject) to be the person one is "playing" with, who is better than one's self.

  17. That is one role of the teacher definitely. The teacher should always be at least a few steps ahead of the class!!! Although there are debates in subjects that are about creative exploration where the teacher facilitates the kids to explore (perhaps using a really good resource) and they can actually not be overly creative themselves...for example.

    A lot of training for adults is a balance between expert input from a facilitator and using tools to bring out the knowledge of the other adults in the room....we can always learn from each other's adults.

    Not sure where I am going with this!!! What was the debate? Was it whether or not Codgi was 'Daily Mail' or not? I am being silly. I think we'll all be fine and safe to hold the views we all have!

  18. That is unless being put in a group with divvies makes Jonathan more likely to commit murder.

    I am sorry..I am just being irreverent now!!!

    Is there such a thing as over-debate? Debate to the point of forgetting where we were going and no longer learning from each other? Id so we might be there.

  19. I struggle with those word verifications - I think it's my dyslexia.


  20. I kinda lost the plot too :)

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