In the current educational environment, the value of grouping is now fully recognised. Back in the 1970's, when I trained as a drama teacher, however, no one told me about the value of effective grouping of students for specific purposes. I came to it through careful observation over a long period of time. Initially I allowed groups to form through student preference. Give students the option and they will gravitate to those they already know; in fact students often chose classes to be with their friends.
There are times when I allow groups to form this way; particularly at the beginning of a school year when I want students - in particular those whom I haven't taught before - to be as comfortable as possible in class. After a couple of weeks into first term however, after I have gained a clear understanding of the basic strengths and weaknesses of the class, I begin to use grouping to achieve specific educational aims.
The application of intelligent grouping and the selection of appropriate games and exercises, for each session, at the commencement of the school year has the potential, in a short period of time, to create a cohesive, inclusive and productive drama class; but it requires close observation and analysis of class dynamics a deep conviction and application of the principles of effective grouping and the force of will to overcome initial student resistance. If you are able to provide a clear argument for the value of grouping for specific purposes and convince the students you will not yield to their wishes, you will, eventually win them over and they will see the value in it all themselves.
Here are the key principles of how to organise groups:
1. Groups should never be fixed - as I have said, if left to their own decisions, students will gravitate to one group of students who become their 'safety zone'. If they are also part of their social group outside of the class, the focus will be predominantly social and it will be hard to get productive work out of them. Social groups may also have negative dynamics that force students into specific roles. In a really restrictive group a fixed hierarchy develops that limits the individuals in the group. If this is coupled with a negative attitude towards you and/or the work, they can become a 'black hole' sucking all the positive energy out of the class.
2. Always have a specific aim with your grouping - I will cover a number of different ways of grouping later. Each one is valid but only to achieve specific outcomes. There is great value in employing a multiplicity of grouping strategies.
3. After the initial formation of the group, carefully observe how the members of each group interact - don't allow negative groupings to continue; either intervene to re-shape the dynamics or , in the rare occasion where it is just not going to work, re-group the whole class. This should absolutely be your last option but act fast at the beginning of a unit of work before the other groups have established fixed roles and/or routines for the work.
4. Your overall aim should be a classroom environment in which every student is willing, and able, to work effectively with every other student - understand that if you are able to achieve this you are instilling in students attitudes and social skills that have life-long value and are one the key foundations for successful performances and productions. If successful, you will unlock boundless energy and creativity in the class. Conversely, grouping problems can totally undermine the creativity and performance potential of the class.
5. Grouping strategies can have a multiplicity educational aims for: the class, the group, the individual, or all three.
They may include:
a) varying grouping for each task - to create an inclusive and fully productive work environment. Grouping according to social preferences is alright occasionally but can be totally counterproductive if allowed to become an expectation. Remember that a large part of effective classroom management is bluff. In reality the power, particularly in a drama class, is in the hands of the students. You cannot MAKE students PERFORM. The aim is to facilitate a productive class environment; ultimately it is THEIR choice.
b) grouping according to skill level and confidence - this is one of the key strategies for modern education. The theory is that a mixed ability group provides opportunities for students who are more confident and/or more competent to help those who are struggling. I employ this grouping strategy. I agree with its underlying philosophy but I would also like to include a note of caution. For this to work requires not just grouping according to ability level. Some students are very competent but are not good teachers. Some can become arrogant and bossy and actually undermine the confidence of others, negating any potential benefit. Some students lack knowledge and skills but have strong social skills that make them the centre of group activity not the work. They may have developed ways of covering up their limitations and actively undermine anyone with superior skills.
I have found that there is some benefit, with some activities, to group students with others of the same level of ability. It can provide students who don't normally exercise leadership to use those skills. Students are more comfortable working in a group where they are not confronted with their limitations all the time. It may be beneficial for those students who naturally take a leading role to have some competition and have to learn to yield, submit to there and collaborate more. Students who always seem to get there own way are faced with other students who are equally strong. They learn what it's like to have to struggle to get ideas heard and develop better strategies for working with others. They become more empathetic and open to other ideas.
There are also compelling reasons to sometimes group strong, competent students together so that they are able to reach their full potential. This is especially so when dealing with a class where poor attitude is a key factor in the the lower level of achievement of others. It can be extremely frustrating for highly motivated students to have to continually compensate for those who chose drama as a subject for the wrong reasons, as a soft option.
c) grouping according to specific skills - perhaps the best way to explain this is to give examples: It may be that in a unit that has as it's outcome the creation and performance of clown skits you make sure there are students in each group that have strong physical performance skills, as well as a good organiser, and maybe someone with artistic skills who could create great clown faces. In a unit that concludes with a documentary theatre performance you make sure there is a balance of students who are competent academically, particularly with research skills. You may also like to ensure that in each group you have at least one student who has proven to have strong scripting skills.
d) grouping for the benefit of the work environment - the observations you make in regard to group dynamics may prompt you to group specific activities as a form of social engineering. Once again examples best explain this: you may have a class that has a large proportion of ESL students. Due to cultural reasons they may find the drama class to be very challenging. They may come from a culture that doesn't value or encourage the expression of opinion or strong physical and emotional expressiveness. You may chose to group them in a way that balances their comfort zone with the need to extend them. Identify students who are naturally empathetic and nurturing to ESL students and those ESL students who lack confidence but are willing to step out of their comfort zone. Include also in the grouping those who feel safer working with other ESL students from the same culture. The ultimate aim is to get every student to be able to leave their comfort zone and develop strong skills in physical and emotional expression, as well as feeling comfortable working with a whole range of different students.
If you are working in a multicultural environment their is a need for caution in how you group students. It may not be wise for example to group Jewish and Arab students together, or Serbian and Croatian students together. When working in Australian Aboriginal communities you need to be sensitive to cultural issues related to clan and'skin'. When working with Korean students you may need to give consideration to social hierarchy and who can relate to who.
It may be beneficial, as part of your overall strategies, to use pairing and partnering to bring out the best in students. You may for example have seen the potential of getting one of your male students working with a female student in a partnership in a two handed short play that you hope will help both reach their full potential. You could partner a student with a great imagination, with a student who has shown ability to push through the tough times in the creation process. You could partner two students with excellent improvisational skills to inspire each other and bring out their full potential.
It goes without saying that one of the best approaches to improvisation games and exercises is to ensure that you employ a variety of different groupings. Firstly, as a means of extending the comfort zone of students. Secondly, as a means of creating class cohesiveness. Thirdly, to ensure that students have the broadest possible experience of working spontaneously and creatively with others. There is no better place in the drama class to engender the skills, knowledge and attitudes for successful ensemble performance.
Effective grouping of course needs to be coupled with: modelling, teaching and coaching students in how to work effectively as a group. We will leave discussion of this for the next blog post.
To conclude, is it stretching things to suggest that your effectiveness in grouping students for specific educational aims, not only benefits the students educationally and personally, but, in no short measure, contributes to a better world? I am old enough, have observed enough and studied the history of mankind enough to know that what we do in the microcosm of our own human interactions, is the only way we will ever change the world we live in. If we can help students to learn how to work effectively with any other student, to learn how to listen effectively, to share ideas effectively, to be able to yield and submit when needed and lead and inspire when needed, to respect and tolerate those with different and opposing views, we are doing our bit for a better future.