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The Learning Conference 2003

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Pupil Groupings in Classrooms, Social Pedagogy and the Promotion of Learning

Peter Kutnick.

As all pupils in classes are placed in some form of grouping throughout their classroom life, it is curious that studies of teaching and learning within classrooms rarely consider the multi-dimensional effects of social context involving within-class groupings. Groupings in which pupils are placed may be a simple designation for seating or may have a collaborative purpose (cognitive discussion); hence they are social pedagogic sites. Existing studies of classroom groupings fall into two camps: naturalistic descriptions of classroom activity (e.g. Galton et al, 1999; Pollard et al, 2000); and experimental studies of co-operative, collaborative and cognitive learning (Slavin, 1990; Johnson & Johnson, 1987; Webb, 1989; Mercer et al, 1999). While both camps offer pedagogic insight, they rarely question the link between grouping and classroom learning. This study maps the occurrence of pupils grouping in English primary schools and questions whether grouping is likely to promote or hinder interaction and learning.
Research on pupil groupings identifies a range of practices and outcomes. Experimental studies using small groupings (4 to 6 pupils) for co-operative, collaborative and cognitive group work (e.g. Slavin, 1990; Johnson & Johnson, 1987) have shown effective interaction and learning. In contrast, naturalistic studies identify how groupings may not be effective: Teachers may not be confident or supportive of group work (Cowie & Rudduck, 1988). Pupils may not be confident or willing to interact with others (Galton, 1990). Groupings are chosen to meet the needs of classroom organisation and physical structure (Dreeben, 1984) or government-based curriculum recommendations (Brown et al, 1998). Seating pupils around tables does not mean that children will interact or work effectively as a small group (Hastings & Schweiso, 1995).
Given the social pedagogic potential (both positive and negative) of classroom groups, this study was planned to: a) provide a representative, systematic, and multidimensional description of pupil groupings as they naturally occur in English primary classrooms at Key Stages 1 and 2 (children aged 5 to 11 years), and b) question how these groupings are being used. Before undertaking this study, a review of the pupil grouping literature identified a number of core, but mulit-dimensional, themes:
1. Group size: It is generally assumed that grouping is related to learning (Howe et al, 1992; Rogoff, 1990; Light & Perret-Clermont, 1990; Johnson & Johnson, 1987; Slavin, 1990), but this relationship is mediated by size of group and task undertaken (Kutnick, 1994); indicating that inappropriate group size inhibits task/learning effectiveness. The few existing naturalistic studies of groupings within classrooms focus on cognitive and discussion tasks and suggest:
? interaction involving all members of a group is more likely in small groups than in large groups (Bossert et al, 1985; and Nasasti & Clements, 1991); and
? large groupings may diffuse responsibility amongst group members which hinders participation in discussions (Webb, 1989).
Small-scale experimental research compliments and qualifies naturalistic studies in focusing on individual versus dyad undertaking practice or cognitive tasks (Dean, 1992; Cox & Berger, 1985; Doise & Mugny, 1984; Damon & Phelps, 1989); and groupings of 4 to 8 for discussion versus role tasks (Johnson & Johnson, 1987).
2. Group composition: Groups may vary by friendship, ability, gender and ethnicity (Hallam & Toutounji, 1996; Howe, 1997; Zajac & Hartup, 1997). Unless some training for interaction takes place, stereotypical identifies of groupings may inhibit learning (Webb et al, 1997).
3. Tasks and curriculum area: Groupings are asked to undertake a variety of learning tasks (e.g. new knowledge, application of knowledge, practise) but effectiveness is related to size (such as interactive discussion, individual revision) and tasks may vary by curricula (Doyle, 1986; Galton & Williamson, 1992; Norman, 1978).
4. Interaction between pupils and with teachers: It is common for pupils to be seated in groups but not actually interact with other group members. Pupils need a variety of skills to act effectively in groups and their interaction is affected by type of task assigned (Bennett & Dunne, 1992; Bossert et al, 1985) and teacher availability/support (Osborn et al, 2000). Teacher presence is also associated with control of knowledge and preferential support for pupils (Rogers, 1990).
As the literature suggests, groups in classrooms are multi-dimensional and a phenomenographic mapping method was devised to capture how grouping use in classrooms. To exemplify this point, a classroom map (attached) shows a variety of group sizes, compositions and structures found in one observation. Some children work alone, some work in pairs, some in a larger group. Different curriculum areas are worked upon at the same time. Within groups, some children work on individuated tasks and some undertake a joint task. Most groupings are single-sex and same ability. The teacher is working with one grouping and no other grouping receives adult attention at this time except an individual child working with a teaching assistant.
Obviously, the picture presented in map will change over time and circumstance. The point remains - that each grouping in a classroom can be viewed from a number of core themes; and the themes and relations between them are central to pupils’ learning experience. Little attention has been paid to the systematic description of these core themes and inter-relationships between the themes.
Teachers were asked to ‘map’ their classrooms at a pre-specified point during normal classroom work time. On the map, teachers identified seating of pupils and their working groupings. For each identified grouping, teachers described composition (sex, ability, friendship mix, size of group), activities being undertaken, presence of teacher or other adult and (any) pupil training for working in groups. Analytic categories for each of these grouping criteria were developed through pre-pilot observations and pilot studies.
Sample: Five LEAs (School Boards) were approached and 111 schools agreed to ask 2 teachers (each) to participate. 187 teachers returned maps and questionnaires; Year 2 (92 classes) and Year 5 (95 classes). Over 1000 groupings were described in the mappings (Year 2: 483 groupings; Year 5: 580 groupings). Nearly all groupings were created by the class teacher (91%).
Groupings were rarely facilitative in the classroom. In many instances groupings were likely to inhibit interaction and learning.
Positive or neutral findings:
? A variety group sizes characterised classrooms. Nearly 50% of all pupils were in small groups (4-6 pupils). Very large groupings, usually whole classes, were experienced by over 20% of pupils. Individuals, dyads and triads were less frequently experienced. Individuals were most likely to be of low or middle ability.
? Most groupings were of mixed sex. Males were more likely found in single sex groupings – when they existed. There was a 56% v 44% balance between mixed and single ability grouping. Friendship grouping was rare.
? Most groupings were assigned English or mathematics tasks and worked on practice/revision.
? Individuated work was the most common activity (63%), followed by whole class interactive teaching (25%) and rare co-operative tasks (12%).
? Grouping sizes did not vary according to the curriculum area except very large groupings were often used in mathematics.
? Teacher presence was most likely when introducing new skills and practising skills; many of these instances took place in a whole class context. Only a small proportion of groupings (approximately 25%) were assigned active peer learning situations.
Findings likely to inhibit the learning potential of groupings:
? There was no consistent relationship between types of learning task and group size, although: dyads were proportionally more likely to undertake application tasks; large groupings of 7-10s likely to undertake new cognitive tasks with teachers present; and individuals to undertake practice/revision tasks.
? Adults were increasingly likely to be present as group size increased (with the exception of individuals). A 26% adult presence with individual children represents a high proportion of presence.
? Dyads and small groups were unlikely to be supervised by teachers but most likely to be assigned individuated (non-social) tasks).
? Adult presence in pupil groupings was associated with ability groups. Low ability groupings (mainly male) were the most likely to have an adult present; in 42% of these instances the adult was not a teacher. High ability groupings (predominantly female) had a teacher present in 75% of instances.
? Only 26% of teachers provided training or encouragement for pupil engagement in group work, and the main activity supported was ‘circle time’ (e.g. Ballard, 1982).
These results extend current studies of primary school classrooms (e.g. Galton et al, 1999; Osborn et al, 2000). The originality of findings lies in the relationships between the core themes and the social pedagogic identification of concerns for effective teaching and learning in classrooms. Key concerns include:
Gender: Low ability boys are often disadvantaged in their grouping placement and adult support while girls receive more mutual support and teacher attention. More boys were assigned to work alone with a high level of adult presence. Low ability boys in individual and small groupings rarely have the range of cognitive insight or social support to challenge ideas or elaborate on their own ideas (Webb, 1989). Also, assigning ability pupils practice tasks within their small groupings is likely to draw them off-task and limit their concentration (Jackson, Kutnick & Kington, 2001). Many low ability boys worked with an adult that was not the teacher; this contrasts with high ability girls who worked mainly with the teacher.
Friendship: Although Zajac & Hartup (1997) show that friendship provides a supportive learning context, teachers rarely grouped pupils by friendship. Alternative supportive relationships which mediate cognitive development (Light & Littleton, 1994) were not encouraged/trained by teachers. It should also be noted, though, that over-reliance on friendship may cause other problems due to the stereotypical nature of friendship choice (Howe, 1997).
Group size: Group size was not related to particular learning task setting a scene where cognitive development is unlikely to be facilitated. The vast majority of learning activities were individuated; interchange and discussion were not encouraged (Webb, 1989). Small groupings were not composed to facilitate co-operative or collaborative interaction and had no clear rationale for use in classrooms. Unsupervised dyads and triads were assigned individuated work, which may draw the child off-task (Jackson, et al., 2001). When the whole class is used for interactive lecturing, it is unlikely that all pupils will be involved (Galton, et al, 1999).
Teachers and adults: Classroom-based adults were most likely to target larger groupings and individuals for their ‘support’. They attempted to gain maximum impact and control by dealing with children in very large groups; being central to the introduction of cognitive material and not allowing circumstances for peer-based development. Teachers also asserted their presence when not needed - in small groups assigned to practice/revision tasks but did not provide maximum support for low ability pupils.
These results suggest that the role of the teacher in creating, organising and supporting classroom grouping needs further consideration. We can only speculate about factors that affect teachers’ reasons for their choice of groupings within their classrooms (social pedagogy concerns) – but note that lack of correspondence between group size, learning and interactive task suggests that classroom learning may not be maximised. Pupils were rarely trained to encourage actual group work. Teachers presence dominated a number of learning tasks, but their presence may also be interpreted as controlling pupils’ behaviour and limiting pedagogic opportunity. This study is an initial description of a social pedagogy of pupil groupings within authentic classrooms. It indicates that teachers should give greater consideration to the pupil grouping as a main site for learning experience.
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Peter Kutnick  (United Kingdom)
Professor of Education (Research)
Education Research Centre
University of Brighton

Head of Education Research Centre and Education Policy and Evaluation Unit at the University of Brighton. Interests in children's social development and social pedagogy of classrooms.

  • Group work
  • Social pedagogy
  • Classroom learning

(30 min Conference Paper, English)