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Small Group vs. Whole Group Instruction

LessonPlansEach week I participate in Twitter Chats with other educators to discuss a variety of educational topics. Well, this past week I participated in an elementary math chat and the topic was small group instruction. I was interested in this topic because I like to see how other teachers organized their small groups. The first question was what is small group instruction? The tweets from teachers began to show up on my screen, but as they began to pop up on the screen one response caught my eye. This tweet said that “Small group is better than whole group instruction.”As I read the tweet I thought to myself, “Oh, really!”

In chapter 6 of the Small Group Training Course it states that the fundamental goal of every instructor is to create a conducive learning environment. Small-group methods of instruction are one approach to the creation of such an environment. This rationale for using small group as an instructional method to master an objective makes complete sense. Small group instruction is not better than whole group because each one accomplishes a certain goal based on the objective that has to mastered.

Many administrators only view small group instruction as the teacher instructing a small group of students and the rest of the class is working in stations. This a narrow view of what small group instruction should look like. For example, I am teaching estimating solutions in problem solving situations and whole group instruction will not work with this objective. I will have to use cooperative groups to achieve the desired outcome that I want because I have already introduced Read Draw Write as our problem solving strategy and the students need to practice using the problem solving strategy in a variety of problem solving situations.

smarter together Also, in NCTM’s Smarter Together:Collaboration and Equity in the Mathematics Classroom states that the definition of learning has started to change. In the last 20 years psychologists have begun to describe learning NOT as acquiring knowledge, but at participating in a “community of practice.” So, working in small groups or with a partner can create the need for each child to engage with the problem.

I’m not sure why whole group instruction has become the red headed step child of education because it has its place in the classroom. There are some students that will get what you teach during whole group and small group will not be necessary. I’m not sure if teachers truly understand that small group instruction should supplement not supplant whole group instruction. Teachers in grades K-2 have tend to see whole group instruction as the villain because they have been programmed to supplant whole group instruction with small group instruction by many administrators who themselves do not understand that small group is a instructional grouping with a particular purpose. Teachers  and administrators must realize that there’s an art to teaching and small group instruction is NOT always the paintbrush of choice.

4 comments

  1. Lorenz Villa says:

    Thanks so much for your insight. I teach sixth grade math and last year taught fifth grade math. I once thought I was beginning to get comfortable with cooperative learning and when I was hired in a different district I thought I would implement my use of cooperative learning. (I was trained under the Kagan system). But my administrator insisted on a primary model based on Reading First. In Texas last year we had new standards and my students were two even three years behind grade level. I had a lot of ground to cover and found that if I worked with small groups I would spend about 15 maybe 20 a day with a group. With 60 students it was clear to me that I could never cover all the curriculum. My administrator never understood the difference between small group instruction and cooperative learning. The result was a train wreck. I am at another school that also expects to see small groups but I have more freedom to use cooperative learning strategies and structures. The difference is like night and day.

    • You are so very welcome. I felt like this was a topic that needed to be discussed because many administrators do not understand that small group instruction is not always appropriate for every lesson. It can make a teacher very miserable when they know that there’s a better grouping structure that could be used to teach an objective.

  2. J Stephens says:

    I have been teaching high school and now middle school reading to students who are sometimes 5 years below grade level. It is extremely difficult to have small groups, which is insisted on by the county, and have those working independently actually continue working. In reading there have been programs purchased and now we are under scrutiny to meet weekly quotas with students who have difficulty doing far less than expected. I have found I make significant gains teaching whole group, giving independent work and circulating, spending more time with those in need, and then doing the same thing when they are at work on their computer programs. The ones who need that individualized attention get it, those who need motivation get it, and those who need discipline or guidance get it. When times are right, I also have the opportunity to insert projects to keep things interesting. This year, unfortunately, the county has dictated our quotas and we are under constant scrutiny to meet numbers. Many students can’t hold up to their proposed numbers so have to allow more time on computers and less whole group teaching, or teaching at all. I think there needs to be common sense inserted to allow teachers with known records and ability to teach, teach.

    • I agree 100%! Whole group is done when the “whole group” needs the instruction. Which is why you’re do well with it because your students are so far behind. Fortunately for me my current principal allows me to teach but I know it won’t always be that way.

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