Differentiation involving group interaction means high ability students have opportunities to collaborate with each other on a challenging task in pairs or groups. Groups should be organized based on “students documented level of learning within the subject area.” These experiences enable students to acquire and enhance their social and leadership skills, learn to take the perspectives of others and become more empathic. Such experiences should include collaboration, self-analysis and critique from others. According to Vygotsky, interaction with others who think differently, or in more sophisticated ways, is a key feature of developmentally powerful learning activity. It enables students to broaden their repertoire of skills through the gradual internalization of mental operations learned from peers and others with greater expertise and experience.
There is an extensive body of research that supports grouping by ability for instruction. In Rogers’ words, “…the evidence is clear that powerful academic effects and small to moderate affective effects are produced when gifted children are grouped with like-ability or like-performing peers and exposed to differentiated learning tasks and expectations.””
It is essential that the tasks offered to groups of advanced learners pose a challenge for all group members. They should be sufficiently difficult to require authentic collaboration because no individual in the group could complete it independently.
In mixed-ability classes this may create a need for tiered activities.This means having multiple versions of the task that vary in difficulty. Tasks are assigned to groups based on members’ pre-assessed levels of readiness. Tiered instruction does not always involve group interaction (collaboration), but it may.
When asked about their preferences when learning in groups, highly able learners indicated they liked working in groups, but not all of the time; doing projects in a group or with a partner when they get to choose their workmates; and learning with workmates who learn as quickly as they do.These research findings suggest high ability learners may prefer to work with each other if the task is difficult.
Collaborative learning experiences can be found or created in the classroom and community. Committee work, student government, literature circles/discussion groups, and community projects all provide opportunities for students to engage in purposeful, challenging activities.
Groups in problem-based learning experiences can be organized so students with the most advanced understanding of the problem can work together consistently, moving in to unfamiliar, sophisticated material throughout their inquiry and solution-building.
Successful group interaction requires collaboration or interdependence of its members. Classroom examples include simulations and problem-based learning experiences in which each student is assigned a role with responsibilities for particular elements of the groups’ overall task.
Group members may need to learn to lead and to follow, to listen and to speak respectfully. The guidelines below are based on Johnson & Johnson’s“Discussion Rules for Participating in an Academic Controversy”. They are reframed here as “attitudes” as they are intended to be adopted by students to self-regulate their behavior when collaborating.
Attitudes for Good Group Work
- I am critical of ideas, not people.
- I remember that we are all in this together. It’s not about “winning” or “losing.”
- I encourage everyone to participate and learn.
- I listen to everyone’s ideas even if I do not agree.
- I ask someone to restate what was said if I do not understand.
- I try to understand many sides of an issue.
- I have good reasons for changing my opinion.
- I bring out many ideas first; then I put them together.
These attitudes can be introduced to students to analyze the successes and struggles in their groups. Which of these attitudes and behaviors are and are not evident in their collaborations? How might they address the attitudes and behaviors that are not strong or not working well?