When I teach and train groups or observe lessons, I am more and more aware of the challenge of stretching stronger learners within group tasks. Stronger learners are often allocated the role of supporting others, peer teaching etc, which consolidates their learning but doesn’t necessarily develop it further. So how can we provide the stretch they need within group work?
1. Group composition and use of roles
Sometimes I find it helpful to group learners so that strong learners work together. I set a task that pushes them and an explicit instruction to challenge, query and use higher order questioning/ thinking skills. If these are not familiar to them, I provide some prompt cards with suggested questions or question stems. I have some challenging extension questions prepared, either on cards or on my lesson plan.
What I notice is that there is automatic stretch for learners if they are working with others around or above their own level of knowledge or skills. This often has a positive effect on group dynamics and the quality of work produced in the group task.
Roles within group tasks can also provide stretch, as you can allocate roles based on skills/ areas of knowledge that learners need to develop, e.g. Spelling monitor for the one who is strong on content but can be careless with accuracy. Most learners, even strong ones, have something they need to work on.
2. Plenary slots – the use of questioning
Plan questions that will stretch and target them carefully to get learning +1 for most people. Research suggests that in questioning teachers tend to stay at the levels of recall and comprehension for most of the time. Deep learning requires work at the higher levels of analysis, synthesis and evaluation, and we can build that into our questioning slots during plenaries, be they mid session or end of lesson.
Questioning is such a fast cognitive process that it can be difficult to change your spontaneous style of questioning. It can be helpful to plan a few meaty questions that require learners to identify key points and how they link to wider learning. The planning process can help us to ask thought-provoking questions that are well-worded, at critical points in the lesson, instead of relying on our own ability to pull them out of the hat. Think about questions that will stretch your strongest learners.
3. What next? The extension task
Strong learners often finish fast and to a good standard. What could provide a motivating stretch at that point?
- Ask them to make up three questions to check understanding of the last task. This can be done as a competition with you choosing the best three to ask the class afterwards.
- Get them to predict which three main points you are going to recap from the group task. Points scored for getting it right, if the learners respond well to an element of competition.
- Have a fun follow up ready – a game, quiz, vocabulary box activity. See this link for more details:
I think that the extension task in this case needs to be something that learners perceive positively so that it feels like an incentive to produce high quality work in good time. More on this point in this blog:
4. The stretch is in my head
Giving space for learners to think individually as part of group work can also create effective stretch, for example:
- Have individual whiteboards to hand for some quick fire questioning and eliciting of key points as preparation for group work. Individuals can then work at their own level.
- Create STOP and THINK mid task reflection points and ask individuals to consider:
- What am I practising or learning in this group work task (skills and knowledge)?
- Where else can I use this skill or knowledge?
- What question occurs to me right now?
5. Feedback to stretch individuals within group work
Use group work as a chance to give feedback to individuals via post it notes or stickers, related to their ILP targets and other wider learning goals. It helps to have a summary grid of those to hand.
Use the medal and mission approach to feedback. Make sure your suggestions stretch your stronger students as well as develop your learners who need more support, so tailor each comment carefully. See this link for more information:
Effective conversations about learning
Encourage self-assessment as part of group work tasks: how well did learners complete the task? And work within their role? Some teachers prepare self-assessment checklists at varying levels of complexity so they can tailor them to individual needs.
If you have other ideas for stretching strong learners, I would like to hear from you. Here are my contact details: