Recently I had the opportunity to research the effects of homogeneous and heterogeneous groupings in the classroom. Although I agree with most of the research in the articles that I read, I feel that the best way to experience the effects of such groupings is to experience it in the classroom on your own.
I have now been teaching mathematics for six years and have never had the opportunity to teach in a situation where the entire class of students were homogeneously grouped. I have, however, had the experience of using both heterogeneous and homogeneous groupings within the same classroom. One year, I had a small group of students who were at a very high level of math and a large group of mixed ability students, all in the same classroom. This class began the year in heterogeneous groups. I soon realized that I was going to have to do something different to challenge the upper level students. That is when I chose a small group to work with to be able to challenge them. It was much more work for me , but the payoff for the students was immense in terms of how much more of my curriculum I could cover with them compared to the other group in the classroom.
This group of students worked quite well together. Not only was I able to challenge them with more difficult assignments and activities they also challenged one another. I would get them started on a lesson or activity by quickly teaching them the concepts that related to the lesson while the other group was going over the previous nights assignment and then let them work as a group to complete the activity or lesson as I instructed the other group. It was amazing to me how motivated this group of students were when left on their own to do the assignment. I would take the opportunity to check in on them as I got the other group working on their activity. Their needs were much less than my heterogeneously grouped students and they were completing much more challenging work. As they worked in groups, it was a total group effort to complete an activity or to solve a problem. I did not have to worry about one of the students not participating in the group activity. My biggest problem was containing their volume when one of them could not convince one of the others that they were doing something incorrect. At times it was comical to sit back and listen to them argue to try and convince one another. There were a few times when the work was not challenging enough that I would have a few behavioral problems, but very rare.
As every educator is aware when dealing with mixed ability groups, you always have the students who prefer to sit back and let some other student do the work. It is quite challenging as a teacher and requires a creative teacher to be able to get every student to participate when you are working with students with mixed abilities. I know that it requires a lot more effort on my part. On many occasions I have grouped students so that I have many levels in one group and there are times when the stronger and more dominant students are doing the work and others will just be along for the ride. As you question the students on their work some of the students cannot tell you what they have done. Some of this relates to their confidence in their abilities and some of it is because they were not participating in the activity and do not understand the material covered. I have also experienced the strong math student who feels used by me to help other students in the classroom. Some of the students are good about helping other students and some are not.
Many low level students that I have worked with feel much more comfortable working in a group when grouped with other students who are at their level. I have seen this year after year in my math labs that I teach. You would not know that they are the same student as when they are in the regular math class. They are so much more responsive to me and to others that they are working with. They have commented that they are afraid to make a mistake in the regular classroom because they feel stupid. When they are working with other students who they know struggle as much as they do they are more comfortable giving answers. As much as I tell them that we all learn from mistakes they just will not participate in class unless I call on them. I as a teacher, I will hesitate to call on them in class because I know how they feel or I will call on them if I know they have the correct answer.
As far as mathematics goes, I would much prefer to work with students who are homogeneous grouped. I can easily challenge my strong math students and cover much more of the necessary curriculum. With the other students it is much easier to give them the one on one instruction and attention that they need to make them more successful in the classroom. Both of these groupings have their advantages and disadvantages, a lot of it depends on the students that you are working with. I feel that I am much better at meeting the needs of my students if they are grouped by their ability.
As we all know when we have groups that are mixed ability