Early in the 19th century, a British teacher named Joseph Lancaster created a school model that would have students of all ages sitting in ability groups by mastery of a subject matter. He named these groups the Bluebird, Robin, and Buzzard groups. (Although this part of the story isn't true, it sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)
The idea of using small student groups for targeted instruction is nothing new in education. Despite this, it is often unclear what the best practices are for making this education model effective for the individual students involved. The lack of understanding about how to plan, monitor, and manage student learning in small groups is one reason that some educators are reluctant to use small group instruction—especially in the middle and high school classroom.
These issues can be overcome with proper planning and execution, so let’s dive into some practical help with small group goals and instruction. This really can be a successful way to help meet the needs of all students in your classroom!
Differentiating Instruction With Small Groups
Small-group instruction provides opportunities for flexible and differentiated learning. Working with fewer students in a group increases adult attention and opportunities for student participation. Students benefit from small group instruction when educators:
Make instruction suitable for each student's readiness level, interests, and learning style
Track individual student understanding and progress
Provide feedback and support tailored to the needs of the individual
Promote higher-level thinking and problem-solving strategies within the group
The answer to "why” teachers use ability groups hasn’t changed much over the years. But there has been significant improvement in defining "what" students are expected to learn and "how" teachers will measure each student's mastery. We cannot just plow through the curriculum and hope every student gets what they need. When teachers use small groups to support struggling students, they can address the needs of several students at once.
Rather than spending time teaching skills that students are not ready for or have already learned, small group interventions target the specific additional instruction, practice, and feedback students need. This approach is not only efficient and effective for educators but also for students.
Students in small groups can participate, receive specific instruction and feedback from their teachers, and practice specific skills without the pressure of comparison with students at a different level of achievement. Small groups foster motivation to succeed as students learn from and with one another. It can also stimulate a greater level of engagement in whole-class lessons and activities by building a student's confidence within the small group setting.
Data will inform your decisions about small group creation, goal planning, and instruction. The use of data begins with identifying student needs, identifying an instructional purpose, selecting curriculum, and placing students in a group. This data includes summative and formative assessments, behavior, attendance, and any other factors that may influence a student's mastery of the learning objective.
Easily accessible and visualizable data can help you keep groups flexible as you look at data often and respond quickly to trends. If you initially group your students based on your state's summative data, you may want to look at progress monitoring data or formative assessment data in 4-6 weeks so that students can move to a new group if needed. Ultimately, choosing how to group your students into small group learning should be based on your assessment of student need as well as your own needs as a teacher.
Initial considerations in creating group goals also include questions about how the students will learn in a group. Will students use technology asynchronously while working towards mastery of a learning objective? Are students going to be taught the learning objective by you or another instructor? Will the group work on a project to demonstrate their mastery of the learning objective? Each group situation would require a different way for teachers to assess student mastery according to the group plan.
Once the groups are established, and needs are identified, group plans are most effective when they begin with SMART goals. There has been a steady increase in the use of SMART goals in education and beyond. Creating SMART goals for groups is a skill that takes time to develop, and even when the skill is established, it can take hours of a teacher's time to develop good goals. Using a template such as the goal planner in BRM, teachers and students can more easily create and track their progress towards an individual or group SMART goal. A template helps teachers frame individual and group goals as SMART goals by navigating through each of the letters in the SMART acronym to fully develop the goal.
Specific: A clear description of what you will accomplish Measurable: Can be evaluated with a quantitative assessment Attainable: Is ambitious but feasible Results-Oriented: States why this goal is important at this time Time-bound: Provides a target date for mastery
For example, a specific math skill may be the focus of one small group while another group is working ahead of the curriculum and is being introduced to a more advanced math concept. Both groups require different instructional planning, different SMART goal, and different monitoring by the teacher. A school-wide multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) framework can be used to identify the goals and skills that should be addressed in the group and how to measure students’ progress over time.
After you develop SMART goals for your group, there are many ways to keep groups moving forward and for students to be successful. One key tool is to have high expectations for student behavior. As veteran teachers know, the more that high student expectations are stated and modeled at the beginning, the easier it is to manage group work in the future. But in my experience, the real secret to successfully accomplishing goals is to monitor and change group membership frequently. Every student knows when they are placed in the "Buzzard" group! And staying in the "Buzzard" group for months on end sends a discouraging message to students about their ability to learn. Additionally, progress monitoring allows teachers to reflect on their own teaching and assess the impact of their instructional strategies.
Effective progress monitoring is imperative for a successful MTSS/RTI practice. In addition to universal screening assessments—which are given to all students three times a year—students receiving Tier 2 or 3 levels of support should be given a progress monitoring assessment every other week or weekly, respectively. These data allow us to have better visibility into whether or not the support is working for a specific student so that we can adjust the intervention approach quickly to better meet the needs of that student. Being able to change and adapt to a student's needs ensures that the "Buzzard" group does not become a permanent part of your small group's formation or a student’s identity.
SEL Goal Planning
Lastly, educators need to understand each student’s current level of social-emotional and behavioral development in order to provide high-quality support. Behavioral data and SEL assessments are presented in conjunction with academic assessments, intervention plans, behavior incidents, progress monitoring, and other documents. The data can then be effectively analyzed to determine the needs and how to meet them.
Challenging behaviors and social difficulties are not uncommon in small group work, and you may have several students with behavior needs. However, best practice in MTSS supports the use of individual goal plans rather than group goals for students around social/emotional skills.
Since social/emotional skills are not "normed" in a way like subject area skills are (i.e., phonics is normed so that a student can be successful in reading), individual lessons will look vastly different for each student while working on a social/emotional skill. For instance, after gathering social/emotional data about your students through an assessment and/or observation, you may find that multiple students need more support in self-management. But self-management skills can range from a better organizational system in school to coping with overwhelming feelings. SEL is not a one-size-fits-all approach. What works for one student might not be suitable for another. That’s why teachers need to collaborate with each other, families, and students to develop a behavioral and SEL goals plan.
The challenge of making group planning and instruction work is that it has to adapt as the students constantly change physically, mentally, and emotionally. This approach requires a lot of effort and time to prepare, resources which can sometimes be scarce. Yet, small group instruction provides opportunities that are very beneficial to students and can save teacher time when done well. It is possible to make a significant academic difference for students through SMART goal planning, high-quality small-group instruction, and targeted progress monitoring.