Tag Archives: teaching mixed level groups

Seeing the trees

We’ve all heard the expression “can’t see the wood for the trees.”  A useful expression to illustrate how we should look towards the bigger picture in order to make things clearer and easier to manage. As teachers, we have honed this skill to the extent that we are no longer able to see the “trees” or individual members of the collective class or “wood.” We talk about types of “trees” and how best to manage them. We suggest ways in which some “trees” can facilitate the growth of others if placed appropriately. We encourage research into the needs of individual “trees” and then make decisions on how to nurture them based on what will serve the majority or the stronger of them.

Ok – clearly I know nothing about trees or their management. I used the metaphor because it made for a good title but I can’t sustain it any longer. I think it’s function has been served.

My point is that we are continually failing the individuals in our classes. As adults, our students are placed according to level of ability and yet we all have classes where the levels of ability are diverse. Some are there because they have scored highly in speaking skills though their written work is weak. Some score highly on paper but struggle to communicate verbally (often, as a result of the “communicative” teaching method that is widely promoted these individuals are penalised: i.e. placed in lower levels,  as they are unable to participate in the kind of verbal activities favoured in this kind of teaching environment.)

Young learners, however, are placed largely (if not solely) based on age, and yet these classes seem to function on a practical level. Why is this? Perhaps it is because, at a young age, the needs of the students are more in tune. As a group they may well have more in common; music, world knowledge, life experience, fears etc. As adults, our students are far more diverse. I have had seventy year old students in the same class as eighteen year olds. No one could argue that their life experience could possibly be comparable or that they are likely to have the same interests, attitudes, applicable life skills and so on. That is not to say that they did not work well together or learn from each other and benefit from being in the same class, but it was only through focusing on the individuals in the group, that this was achieved.

In fact, it is often in the groups that have been the most noticeably diverse that I have seen the most progress in learning. This has mainly been as a result of the acceptance and the ability to embrace different needs and interests encouraged by allowing individuals to focus on things that are relevant to, and interest them, and then allowing space to share what they have learned.

In classes where students seem more homogenous, there is a danger that the stronger, more vociferous, or needy students dominate. The majority of the class seems happy and engaged   in the activities. It is assumed that all the students’ needs are being met because no one is complaining. Do we judge the “success” of our teaching by keeping the majority happy? Are we even meeting the needs of the majority or do they simply happen to enjoy and perform well in the tasks we set? Have we, by placing them in that class, at that level, set them up for success rather than considered and attempted to meet their needs as individuals?

I understand the economics behind teaching learners in groups. I also believe there is a huge benefit to learning anything in a group rather than in isolation. I, personally, have always found group learning of any subject, to be more beneficial and enjoyable than learning in isolation.

My most enjoyable and successful learning has  been in groups where the learning goal was the same, or at least the qualification, and yet abilities and motivations were extremely diverse. The syllabus taught to us was the same but we all got different things out of it. We often worked individually, to report back to the group later. We also worked in small groups with shared goals. Sometimes we worked on the same tasks at the same time and reached different outcomes. We came to the course as individuals, maintained our individuality while benefiting from the camaraderie of the social group, and left, most of us, achieving our individual goals.

As teachers, we should always see our classes as a collection of individuals, we should not be blinded by the group. Nurture the individual trees and the wood will flourish.