Developing An Educational Plan/Curriculum
Instructional Management / Grouping
by Karen Rogers, Ph.D.
Excerpted from Re-Forming Gifted Education
The previous sections presented a variety of ways to make individual enrichment and acceleration decisions for children who are significantly beyond their agemates and who are learning significantly faster than their grade-level peers. Only a few of the options provided ways for these gifted or talented children to work with each other.
Few parents wish to see their child come to school and work alone for the next 13 years of school. At the same time, neither do most parents of gifted children wish to see their child work exclusively at the average pace of mixed-ability groups for the next 13 years of school. Peer relations are important; so is learning to work in groups.
Two broad categories of grouping are (1) small group and (2) whole class.
Each of these broad categories can have significant variations. Small groups for gifted children may take any one of the following forms:
A “dyad” of two students, often grouped for joint projects or peer tutoring.
A “cluster” of five to eight students, usually grouped within one classroom for the purposes of academic differentiation of curriculum.
An “enrichment grouping” of eight to 12 students either in a pull-out grouping or a within-class grouping.
A regrouping of students based on performance level in specific subject areas, either with all students at the same grade levels or across grade levels.
Whole class groups typically are of only two general types: either the groups are mixed-ability (heterogeneous) or like-ability (homogeneous).
The history of grouping practices in schools has been controversial, with strong opinions for and against it. The first documented research on gifted programming occurred in 1878 in the St. Louis, Missouri, school system. Since then, educators have at various times looked upon the ability grouping of bright children both favorably and unfavorably.
Forms of Grouping
The most frequent forms of grouping for high ability children are:
Whole class strategies
Small group strategies
Pull-out gifted groups
Regrouping by ability/achievement level for specific subject instruction
Within-class ability/achievement level for specific subject instruction
Like-ability cooperative grouping
Cross-grade grouping by achievement level
Peer tutoring dyads
Mixed-ability cooperative grouping ("Default" option)
Full-Time Ability Grouping/Tracking
Full-time ability grouping, sometimes called “tracking,” has been roundly criticized by some in recent years. In essence, it is the practice of grouping children by their performance on tests of ability or achievement into different curriculum levels.
Once placed, students took all of their classes within their track, regardless of how uneven their own abilities or performances might be. This kind of inflexible tracking had the danger of becoming a permanent and rigid demarcation of students. If teacher and student attitudes were not carefully monitored in schools, it became a way of labeling students' worth as well. Jeannie Oakes (1985) in her landmark book, Keeping Track, clearly describes the potential emotional turmoil that rigid and inflexible tracking could cause.
But tracking as described by Oakes in 1985 had little to do with educating gifted and talented children. Gifted children, in fact, were found at all levels. If they were achieving at high levels, they might be placed in the top track (and a lot of them were), but if they were underachieving, they could have easily been found in the middle or lower tracks, depending on how severe their underachievement.
Some variations of tracking do deal directly with gifted children, however, and these have been studied, particularly with regard to full-time ability grouping. The most frequent of these variations are special schools for the gifted and other full-time gifted programs, sometimes called a school-within-a-school.
Untracked Whole-Class Instruction: The “Default” Option
Heterogeneous grouping is the classic view of what teachers do in schools. That is, they present a lesson for the whole class, with little or no differentiation for either lower or higher ability students. All students are given the same tasks that allow them to practice the concept being presented until it is mastered. To measure mastery, a test either diagnostic or final is administered, and grades are then assigned based on how well the student performs on the test. This organizational model is not an appropriate option for gifted learners!
Small Group Strategies: Pull-Out Groups
In the early 1980's, researchers found that nearly 80% of all gifted programs surveyed at that time used pull-out groups to deliver differentiated educational experiences to gifted children, and this option is still practiced widely today. Also known as “send-out” or “resource” programs, pull-out groups usually remove children from regular classroom work for a specified number of hours per week. During this time, they meet with a gifted specialist teacher and with other gifted children (of similar or varied ages) to engage in enrichment or extension activities, which may or may not be related to what is going on in the regular classroom.
Small Group Strategies: Cluster Grouping
Cluster grouping refers to the practice of identifying the top five to eight academically talented (or intellectually gifted) students at a grade level and placing them in the same classroom at that grade level with a teacher best suited and qualified to work with gifted students. Such a teacher is one who (1) likes to work with gifted, (2) is trained or is willing to acquire special training to work with gifted children, and (3) will actually spend a proportionate amount of instructional time with this small cluster group.
The cluster group will have daily blocks of time when those students work both with intellectual peers and with chronological peers. Academic subjects for the cluster group students will be delivered at an appropriately challenging level and pace. The cluster group students will have the opportunity to interact with students of all ability levels in their classroom in non-academic areas.
Small Group Strategies: Regrouping for Specific Subject Instruction
In regrouping, students who are gifted in an area such as mathematics are grouped with similarly gifted students. At the elementary school level, regrouping is most often a school-wide or grade-wide decision, such that the subject area to be regrouped such as reading, math, science, or social studies is taught by all teachers at the same time of day. Students are sorted by their current level of ability or performance in that subject and go to one teacher responsible for their level during that subject area time.
Small Group Strategies: Within-Class Grouping
At the elementary level, a teacher using within-class grouping will divide the class into smaller groups for instruction in reading or math according to their abilities (gifts) or performance (talents) in those areas. Each group will be named something not descriptive of a level, such as birds' names, colors, names of countries or cities, and so forth. Each group then spends a proportionate amount of the subject-area instructional time working directly with the teacher usually at least once each day while the other groups work by themselves on other assigned tasks.
At the secondary level, within-class grouping is used less regularly, in part because of the complexity of management. The typical high school teacher has five to six classes per day in different subjects, each a class of 20 to 30 students. Even so, a teacher may decide to divide a class period into smaller groups if the students differ markedly in their background knowledge and skills regarding a specific topic. The more widely diverse the abilities within a classroom, the more necessary this sort of grouping may become. Tasks and assignments may be differentiated for different small groups so that all learners can move forward at their own levels in the topic being learned.
Small Group Strategies: Cooperative Grouping
Like-ability cooperative learning found some popularity in the 1990s. In this option, a teacher selects into groups three or four students who are processing or performing at approximately the same level. The groups work together on materials or tasks differentiated for their level of performance or ability. Each student takes a test at the end, but evaluations of how each individual contributed to the shared learning are a part of each student's grade as well.
Small Group Strategies: Cross-Grade Grouping
Cross-Grade Grouping, sometimes called cross-age grouping, is a variation of regrouping for specific instruction. In this case, an elementary school must have a schedule such that all grade levels teach reading or math or science or social studies at the same time of day. The key to this option is that there are no ceilings or basements for what children can or cannot learn at a specific grade level a philosophy that could reap substantial benefits for academically talented children.
Cross-grade grouping at the middle school and high school levels is less often a school-wide program. Courses are frequently offered at these levels that are open to any student in that school, regardless of actual grade level. A ninth-grade student who is extraordinarily advanced in math can take Calculus along with the few eleventh graders and many twelfth graders who are enrolled. If she is also advanced in language, she could register for a special seminar on 19th century British Literature, normally a twelfth-grade course, rather than sitting through the ninth-grade Introduction to Literature.
Peer Tutoring Dyads
Since the mid-1980s, this grouping strategy has been researched extensively, particularly in the areas of reading, science, mathematics, and computers. The strategy most often involves teacher selection of a dyad of two students one "high" and one "low" or "average" student to work together on the mastery of specific academic tasks. The rationale for such pairing is that the higher student will be able to teach, or re-teach, the task to the lower student. A variation of the practice is to place students of similar ability in pairs to work jointly on mastery of differentiated academic tasks; there, a "higher performing" dyad would be given a more challenging task to work on than a "lower performing" dyad.
The mixed-pair practice has been used extensively at all building levels, elementary, middle/junior high, and senior high. Most research studies, however, have examined elementary applications; few studies have focused on middle school dyads. In general, the like-ability variation of this practice occurs more frequently at the high school level in classes that already are regrouped by achievement or ability levels.
Small Group Strategies: Mixed-Ability Cooperative Grouping (A “Default” Option)
Heterogeneous grouping for cooperative learning has been a widely adopted educational reform in recent years, often hailed as being beneficial for all children. On the other hand, many parents worry that their children are being slowed in their learning because the school's focus is on socializing children and teaching to the average or mid-range child.
Mixed-ability cooperative learning will probably be available to your child without your input. It will be your job to figure out alternatives to the “default” option of mixed-ability instructional grouping. Specifically, you will need to consider which forms of grouping and acceleration would allow your gifted child to make the progress he is capable of making for the year.