Pros and Cons to Flexible Grouping in Middle and High School

Differing Positions on Grouping and Regrouping in Class

Pros and Cons on Flex Grouping in grades 7-12. Don Nichols E+/GETTY Images

Every student learns differently. Some students are visual learners who prefer using pictures or images; some students are physical or kinesthetic who prefer using their bodies and sense of touch. Different learning styles mean that teachers must try to address the variety of learning styles of their students to target instruction. One way to achieve this is through flexible-grouping.

Flexible grouping (flex grouping) is the "purposeful and strategic grouping/regrouping of students within the classroom and in combination with other classes in various ways based on the subject area and/or type of task."

Flexible grouping is used in middle and high school, grades 7-12, to help differentiate instruction for students in any content area. 

Flex-grouping allows teachers the opportunity to organize collaborative and cooperative activities in the classroom. In creating flexible groups teachers may use test results, student in-class performance, and an individualized evaluation of a student's set of skills to determine the group into which a student should be placed. Regular review of placement in flex-grouping is recommended.

In flex-grouping, teachers can also group students by levels of ability. There are ability levels organized in three (below proficiency, approaching proficiency) or four (remedial, approaching proficiency, proficiency, goal). Organizing students by ability levels is a form of proficiency-based learning which is more common in the elementary grades. A type of assessment that is growing at the secondary level is standards-based grading which ties performance to proficiency levels.

If there is a need to group students by ability, teachers can organize students into heterogeneous grouping mixing students with different skills or into homogenous groups with students in separate groups based on high, medium, or low academic achievement. Homogeneous grouping is used for improving specific student skills or measuring student understanding more often. The student grouped with students demonstrating similar needs is one way a teacher can target identified needs students have in common. By targeting the help each student needs, a teacher can create flex groups for the most remedial students while also offering flex groups for higher achieving students. 

As a caution, however, educators should recognize that when homogeneous grouping is used consistently in the classroom, the practice is similar to tracking students. The sustained separation of students by academic ability into groups for all subjects or specific classes within a school is called tracking. This practice of tracking is discouraged as research shows that tracking negatively impacts academic growth. The key word in the definition of tracking is the word "sustained" which contrasts with the purpose of flex grouping. Since the groups are organized around a particular task, flex grouping is not sustained.

Should there be a need to organize groups for socialization, teachers can create groups through a drawing or lottery. Groups can be created through pairs spontaneously. Once again, each student's learning style is an important consideration as well. Asking students to participate in organizing the flex groups ("How would you like to learn this material?") may increase student engagement and motivation.

Pros in Using Flexible Grouping

Flexible grouping is one strategy that allows the teacher opportunities to address each learner's specific needs, while regular grouping and regrouping encourage student relationships with teacher and classmates. These collaborative experiences in the classroom help to prepare students for the authentic experiences of working with others in college and their chosen career. 

Research shows that flex grouping minimizes the stigma of being different and for many students helps to reduce their anxiety. Flex grouping provides an opportunity for all students to develop leadership skills and take responsibility for their learning. 

Students in flex groups need to communicate with other students, a practice which develops speaking and listening skills. These skills are part of the Common Core State Standards in Speaking and Listening CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1

"[Students] repare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively."

While developing speaking and listening skills are important for all students, they are particularly important for students labeled as English Language Learners (ELL, EL, ESL or EFL). Conversations between students may not always be academic, but for these ELs, speaking to and listening to their classmates is an academic exercise regardless of topic.

Cons in Using Flexible Grouping

Flexible grouping takes time to implement successfully. Even in grades 7-12, students need to be trained in the procedures and expectations for group work. Setting standards for cooperation and practicing routines can be time-consuming. Developing stamina for working in groups takes time.

Collaboration in groups may be uneven. Everyone has had an experience in school or at work of working with a "slacker" who may have contributed little effort. In these cases, flex grouping may penalize students who may work harder than other students who may not help.

Mixed ability groups may not provide the support needed for all members of the group. Moreover, single ability groups limit peer to peer interaction. The concern with separate ability groups is that placing students into lower groups often results in lower expectations. These kinds of homogenous groups organized only by ability can result in tracking. 

The National Education Association (NEA) research on tracking shows that when schools track their students, those students generally stay at one level. Staying at one level means that the achievement gap grows exponentially over the years, and academic delay for the student gets worse over time. Tracked students may never have the opportunity to escape to higher groups or levels of achievement. 

Finally, in grades 7-12, social influence can complicate grouping students. Some students may be negatively affected by peer pressure. Student social and emotional needs require that teachers need to be aware of their students' social interactions before organizing a group.

Conclusion

Flexible grouping means that teachers can group and regroup students to address student academic skills. The collaborative experience of flexible grouping can also better prepare students for working with others after they leave school. While there is no formula for creating perfect groups in class, placing students in these collaborative experiences is a critical component of college and career readiness.