Making Small Groups Work for Differentiated Instruction


Note: On February 17, Dr. Vicki Gibson, a national education consultant, author, speaker and trainer, will lead a McGraw-Hill Education webinar titled “Classroom Management for Differentiating Instruction and Collaborative Practice.” The session will provide solutions for the challenges that many teachers experience when providing students with differentiated instruction using a small-group approach. In this post, Dr. Gibson previews the discussion.

More than 30 years of research has proven that working with students in small groups works best to enhance learning and achievement.  Yet, most classroom practices continue using lecture-format lessons that do not allow sufficient discussion and student engagement.

The biggest challenge for successfully implementing standards-based instruction, and differentiated teaching and practice, is classroom management.  Getting teachers to depart from traditional practices by provide whole-group and small-group lessons and collaborative practice will require changes in daily habits.

Why the recommended shifts in classroom practice?  While whole-class lessons are useful for overviews, modeling, and quick reviews, presenting rigorous content in whole class is risky.  Teachers often cannot closely monitor students’ response to instruction or provide explicit, real-time feedback to students in whole class.

Working with students in smaller groups allows teachers to attend to instructional needs and differentiate teaching at the point of need.  Students can ask questions and receive more explicit feedback.  Using small group lessons enables students to access complex text with teacher support and increase their comprehension before working independently on assignments.

Small group collaborative practice activities also help to enhance comprehension.  Students engage in cooperative learning activities that involve more analytical thinking and reflection, close reading and discussion, and writing using evidence to support responses. Students spend more time talking before they write, organizing their thoughts and words using complete sentences orally.

Clearly, teachers must establish routines and procedures for managing simultaneously occurring small group activities that include teacher-led lessons as well as collaborative and independent practice.

The change process begins with teachers clarifying expectations for performance.  One helpful tool for managing the small-group approach is a rotation chart that identifies group memberships and shows students where and when they will participate in various activities.  One quick look at the chart and students can determine their group assignment and the order of activities that day.

Another helpful management tool that is more familiar to classrooms is a daily schedule.  Teachers create a daily schedule that includes time periods for each activity.  They post the daily schedule beside the rotation chart, encouraging students to self-regulate and monitor their use of instructional time.

Using a whole-group and small group classroom management approach for differentiating instruction often represents a classroom culture change, so making the instructional shifts will require support and professional development.  Most likely, the degree of success that teachers will experience in implementing standards-based instruction using small groups will be directly correlated with the amount of professional development and support they receive.

To register for Vicki Gibson’s webinar, go to:

REFERENCE …Classroom Management:  Training Our Future Teachers, (January, 2014), National Council on Teacher Quality, Baltimore, MD.

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