Monday, July 20, 2009

Heterogeneous and Homogeneous Grouping: The Debate Continues

Heterogeneous and Homogeneous Grouping:  The Debate Continues

By: Dan Lavelle

  Any person entering the field of education today, whether it is from an undergraduate program, a masters program, or an alternative track, will likely be inundated with dozens of key terms and definitions that surround an education program.  During Fordham’s program, one of these key terms that were frequently brought up by every professor was the concept of cooperative learning.  Cooperative learning can be defined as “a genre of instructional strategies that use small groups of students working together on learning tasks, stressing support for one another rather than competition.” (Kellough & Kellough, 2008)  Within the realm of cooperative learning, there is a main issue that many new teachers struggle with regarding how their students should be grouped together.  Teachers are constantly reflecting, rethinking, and reorganizing their teaching to be more effective for student learning.  Within that realm, teachers must decide whether homogeneous grouping, where students of similar abilities are grouped together, or heterogeneous grouping, where students are varying abilities are grouped together, is more effective for overall student learning.  We also should realize that student ethnicity also plays a role in grouping techniques—should students be grouped by their common ethnicity or should they be grouped with students of other ethnicities.  In the classroom, these decisions are all on the teacher and can have major implications for student learning. 

            In researching for this assignment, I was surprised to learn the quantity of research on the topic of heterogeneity and homogeneity at the school-level and how it may or may not affect performance of the entire student body as well as the school in general.  According to Faris (2009), who conducted a study on heterogeneous and homogeneous grouping, there is evidence that concludes when a school has more heterogeneous characteristics—different ethnicities, varying socioeconomic status, varying cognitive abilities, etc—that it has a greater chance to affect the school negatively academically.  In other words, on the school-wide level, Faris (2009) states that the majority of authors/researchers she has studied have come to the conclusion that student body heterogeneity may have a negative impact on the overall performance of the school.  So how does this data relate to heterogeneous and homogeneous grouping at the classroom level?  Do school-wide issues (problems?) of heterogeneity “trickle-down” into the classroom? 

            The answer to the above question, in short, is no.  As a new teacher, often we encounter classrooms with an unbelievably large range of cognitive ability, reading levels, as well as a very diverse population.  In classrooms such as these, teachers often rely on homogeneous grouping techniques because they allow time for the teacher to remediate struggling students while the higher performing students move ahead at their own pace.  At first read, the rationale behind homogeneous grouping makes sense—put similar students together so they can focus together on the skills they are struggling with.  During student teaching, I even engaged in cooperative learning activities with homogeneous grouping—it just made sense.  Alan Singer, author of Social Studies for Secondary Schools (2007), vehemently disagrees with the idea of homogeneous grouping.  One disadvantage is that it creates academic and social tracking, with students feeling separated and stigmatized.  Students may also feel like they are permanently trapped in the “stupid group” of students, making them unwilling to invest their energy into learning.  Students who are placed in the higher-performing homogeneous groups, then, may start to feel arrogant about their abilities and begin to dislike their “other” classmates.  In a larger sense, especially for a social studies teacher, homogeneous groups also reinforce the divisions (social, economic, cognitive) that are already present in our society while ill-equipping our students to live, work, and play with people who are “different” from them. (Singer, 2007)

            The advantages of heterogeneous grouping at the classroom level are numerous.  First, they provide settings where people from different backgrounds, classes, gender, ethnicities, culture, and achievement levels can learn to work together in a mutually beneficial environment.  (Kellough & Kellough, 2008) Secondly, they allow for students to learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  Third, they allow students to share “across their differences,” enriching the experience.  Fourth, they allow students to learn about each other, shared interests, and shared concerns.  Fifth, and perhaps the most important for a social studies teacher, is that they prepare students to be part of a diverse, democratic society. (Singer, 2007)

Faris (2009) would most likely agree with the assertions of Singer, as her research reached many of the same conclusions.  Faris’s study was a comprehensive study on the affects of homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping in multicultural science classes.  The results were quite interesting and clearly advocate for heterogeneous grouping as a more effective learning tool.  She states, “Studying in entirely heterogeneous groups confers the students more capability for ability building, self-confidence and better academic self-concept. This effect is maximized when the group contains not only mixed ability students but also students from other nationalities.”  Therefore, according to Faris (2009), heterogeneous grouping was better in a myriad of ways.  She also states, “having mixed ability students in the learning groups improves the students sharing capabilities and the peer relations.  As the heterogeneous nature of the learning groups increases by either having more different nationalities, mixed ability students or both, the students enjoyment in learning science increases.”  From these statements, and the research that backs them up, it is clear that heterogeneous grouping is more effective for student learning as well as student social development. 

Although there have been a number of studies that have concluded that heterogeneous grouping during cooperative learning activities is more effective for student learning, there are still a number of people who believe homogeneous grouping can be more beneficial.  Most people who advocate for homogeneous grouping (often times it is the parents) believe that mixed-ability grouping slows down the learning of higher performing students. (Johnson et all, 2007)  These statements have been studied countless times.  Alan Singer (2007) mentions that studies conducted by learning specialists from the University of Minnesota show that high-achieving students who worked in heterogeneous learning teams do at least as well on standardized-test as high achievers who worked in competitive homogeneous learning teams.  Furthermore, he states that low and middle level achievers who are involved in heterogeneous grouping teams also tend to perform better on standardized tests—while also benefiting from learning important social skills.  Salend (2008) also mentions that heterogeneous grouping should be the goal for cooperative learning activities as they have no negative affect on high performing students and they have immensely positive affects on lower and middle level students.  Regardless of the studies conducted on the positive affects of heterogeneous grouping, I surmise that many teachers—especially some of the older ones—may still use homogeneous grouping as their primary grouping method.

One issue that every author—pro-heterogeneous grouping or pro-homogeneous grouping alike—stressed was that more often than not, it is how the teacher sets up the activity, the instruction, and the materials that have more “weight” on the degree of student learning than the makeup of the cooperative learning groups.  I very much agree with this statement, but I feel like many advocates of heterogeneous grouping get on their soapbox and state how beneficial and effective heterogeneous cooperative learning can be but do it in a way that makes it seem like “If-I-group-my-students-like-this-then-they-will-all-just-magically-learn-from-each other.”  In other words, these authors make it seem like heterogeneous grouping by itself allows for effective learning to occur.  Sometimes they forget to stress that group work is just a teaching method, and it is really how much work the teacher puts into the group work activity that will influence student learning in the greatest degree.  We should be striving for heterogeneous grouping in our classrooms—the positives can be immense—but we must also realize how important our hard work, pedagogical skills, and creativity can be for ensuring successful student learning.  In short, grouping your students heterogeneously does not guarantee more effective student learning, but the research shows that if you structure your group work activities correctly, heterogeneously grouping can yield positive academic gains for all students.  I know that when I get my first teaching job, heterogeneous grouping will be a staple of my group work activities! 


Works Cited

Faris, O. (2009) The Impact of Homogeneous vs. Heterogeneous Collaborative Learning Groups in Multicultural Classes on the Achievement and Attitudes of Nine Graders towardsLearning Science.  Online Submission, Feb. 2009.  Retrieved from “Eric” Database on 7/19/2009.

Johnson et al. (2008) Foundations of American Education.  New York: Pearson Education.

Kellough, R.D. & Kellough, N.D. (2007)  Secondary School Teaching: A Guide to Methods and Resources (3rd Ed).  New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. 

Salend, S. (2008)  Creating Inclusive Classrooms.  New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall

Singer, A.J. (2009)  Social Studies for Secondary Schools (3rd Ed)  New York, NY:  Routledge Group.


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