Monday, September 10, 2012

Are You Losing Effectiveness with Too Many Whole Group Activities?

          Yolanda was trying to listen to Mrs. Green as she went over the math lesson. The other 21 first graders were at the desks, sitting in groups of four or five. Yolanda had her back toward the board so she turned in her chair to try to see what Mrs. Green was writing. Then she looked down at the workbook on her desk. She couldn’t find anything that looked like what was written on the board. She turned a few pages in the book, and then gave up. Yolanda knew already that she wasn’t any good at math. Her teacher had told her that last year, and her mom usually yelled at her because she got bad grades on her report card. Looking over at Latonya who sits next to her, Yolanda saw her writing neat little numbers in the boxes up and down the page. Her handwriting was so pretty. But she knew she wasn’t smart like Latonya. Yolanda started to daydream, looking out the window. She knew math would be over soon and she could get up then and move around a little bit before reading groups. Mrs. Green continued to talk, writing numbers and lines on the whiteboard, but Yolanda was lost in her own world.

          Whole group activities and lessons have three major problems:
  1. Undifferentiated Instruction. In any classroom, children are rarely on the same instructional level and ready to learn the same material. In much whole-group instruction, only the children in the mid-level academic range are engaged. For some children the material is way too advanced and they zone out or cause distractions. For others, the material is not challenging enough and they are not learning anything new.

  2. Lack of Engagement. It is extremely challenging to manage whole group instruction in a way that keeps all the children engaged, partly because of the mismatch of instructional levels noted above, and partly because it is hard to get 25 children to do anything together smoothly. It takes a very talented teacher to keep all the children on task and learning. When I observe in elementary classrooms, I frequently see children on the wrong page, playing with objects in their desks, looking into space, or even reading their own book under their desk. Whole group lessons require children to learn at the pace of the teacher, rather than their own rhythm.

  3. Passivity. Because of the nature of most whole-group instruction, it is hard to keep all the children actively engaged in the lesson. Often they are watching a demonstration, listening to others talk, or waving their hand wildly to answer a question without being called on. Although there are some simple methods for getting children more engaged in whole group activities, there is still little opportunity to explore, question, experiment, or get deeply involved in a topic.

I recommend that you look closely at your daily schedule to determine the relative percentage of time that children are in whole-group lessons compared to other formats. How many hours each day are children sitting? Here are some suggestions for improving the motivation and efficiency of children's learning:

  • Use the Guided Reading Model in other subjects. Plan your mathematics, science or social studies instruction along the same lines as guided reading. Set up one group which works with you on the lesson material, then create other groups who work independently at centers during this time. Rotate the groups so that all children get a small group lesson with you which is targeted for their skill level.
  • Use Cooperative Learning. The trick to successful cooperative learning is providing structure and teaching children the skills they need to work together. Below is a video showing how one teacher does this in his classroom. I also recommend the resources from Kagan Publishing.
  •  Incorporate Problem-Based Learning. Long term projects that the whole class participate in allows for skill and content development, individualized pacing, and self-regulated learning. Here's a wonderful example from a kindergarten classroom:

Please share with us other ideas you have for alternatives to whole group instruction that you have used!


  1. Being that I work with a classroom size of eight children I rarely use group teaching, however; when I teach the initial instruction of the lesson I have the children all in one large group. I do notice some children wandering, so I like to prompt each child with a participation question. For example, if I am teaching a math lesson on addition I will ask each child to solve one problem. Then, later in the day during seat work time I sit with each child reviewing and helping them individually.

    1. Great idea for getting the children involved. The more you can increase each child's participation the more likely they will stay involved with the group.

  2. My LAL and Math blocks are broken down to Whole Group and Individual/Small Group Instruction. I've found that curbing my whole group instruction down to a limited time gives me more time to meet with students and truly understand their needs. Plus, I've realized that students love learning from each other so what better way to do that than with centers? In Math, I'll put 5 centers out and I'll pick a group leader that I know may be more advanced in that particular skill. This way, the students are learning not only from my when they meet at my center, but from each other using hands on activities. Also, having them rotate seems to manage behavior issues because they're not stuck in a plastic chair all day. My students are constantly moving around- whether it's from their seats to the rug or answering question in a debate standing on opposite sides of the room or in centers! JC