Monday, 13 October 2014

The Grouping Experiment

This is a follow up post to Classroom Evolution, where I looked at how my seating arrangements changed over two years. This year (2014), I placed the desks into groups of three, not in a row but facing each other. At the same time, I implemented randomized seating - people not sitting in the same desk for two days running. (Not vertical surfaces, I’m not that daring.) Here’s how that’s been going. Spoiler: Painfully.

Room setup, Sept 2014

Initial Issues

-One particular class would have two students (autistic, and visually impaired) who needed the same seating every day. I worked that out in advance, giving them particular seats, figuring the others can permute around them.

-Two of my classes were less than 30 students, meaning one of the sets of three likely wouldn’t be needed (if I wanted to avoid a group of one, plus having an empty group seemed beneficial if there was someone who wanted to work individually on a certain day). Thus I figured on removing the “10”s. (Aside: I also put lines underneath 6 and 9, to distinguish them.)

-I scratched my head a bit about testing with this setup. Rather than rearrange desks on test days (as I had with prior setups), I decided I would create a couple different versions of the test - they would look the same, but with different numbers. With that plus randomized seating, hopefully there would not be the temptation to look at someone else’s paper.

-I am NOT good with names. It usually takes me a couple of weeks, and the crutch I have previously fallen back on is their spatial location in the room. I wouldn’t have that any more. So I figured on having the students make labels for their desks (colour coded by course) to help me out initially.

With all of that (more or less) decided, I laminated numbers 1 through 10, and handed them to students as they came in the first day. There were labels on the grouped desks of mathematical formulas (for instance, group 3 was “tan-squared 30”). There was some confusion, but once people had seats I went around to explain those pieces of mathematics, which acted as a reminder of what math was. Then we could get going.

I have been doing this for six weeks now.

What Didn’t Work

1) Desk labels with names. Failed within two days. People didn’t have them, or if they’d left them in class they didn’t want to search for them, or they WERE there, they were buried under binders, so no. On the bright side, what this forced me to do during the first week was go around to every group to try and get names, and while there, discuss where people felt like they were at with the material. Also, it let me recollect the laminated numbers, which became a bit of a mental check for me. If at the end of the period I hadn’t collected up the numbers, this told me I wasn’t always managing to hit individual groups. (Granted, sometimes that’s because you go where the hands are.)

2) Lamination. I hesitate to say it was a complete waste of my money, because it’s made the paper more robust, but students would flick at the corner, and literally peel away the two sides of the page, turning one number “5” into two of them. Then potentially give one to a friend, or keep theirs for the next day, or... I’m not sure what they were doing. I expected a bit of sifting through numbers, but I found myself having to do it every day, to make sure I had three, and exactly three, of each set. There now are a bunch of extraneous half sheet laminated numbers in my desk.

3) Random selection. Before the end of the first week, students weren’t grabbing a random number out of the box, they were sifting through, looking for a “nice” number. This defeats the whole purpose. So I started having to dump the numbers into my hand and literally just hand someone a number as they entered. The trouble is, in the afternoon, I have two large classes back to back (with 5 minutes travel time). So as I’m trying to save the prior SmartBoard file, and find the new class directory, and answer lingering questions, and reassure student X that they can come for help after school... the new class is wandering in and sifting through looking for a “nice” number.

I eventually had to read my largest class the riot act. I explained (again, as I had the first day) that I was doing this to encourage more collaboration (particularly with my 3M class, I don’t want a clique of 2D/2Ps - Ontario teachers will get that), and to create a sense of community, and to see how others have the same problems or different solutions, and so everyone get back out into the damn hallway and do this right it’s not that bloody difficult! (I may have been slightly more diplomatic. Slightly.)

Really? Seriously?
Related to that, it was pretty much impossible for me to pull the numbers for a single group consistently after my large class, meaning my (somewhat) smaller classes were spread out throughout the whole room - sometimes one person at a group. Leading to me saying they could hook up with a set of two. Essentially sabotaging myself. I also teetered on the edge of an emotional breakdown one morning when I was busy, and my seniors came in and figured they could just sit where they liked because I wasn’t physically at the doorway with numbers.

Writing it down, probably the sole reason I’ve been able to keep this up despite their “let’s game the system” attempts is the fact that I have no backup plan. Well that and the fact I still believe in it, trusting things will be better in the end.

4) Projector. Oh, right - my projector started complaining of overheating, so our tech fixed it up and replaced the bulb. Except the new bulb (somehow) isn’t as bright as the previous one. So if you’re in a group near the back, it’s actually hard to see the SmartBoard. I anticipated visibility being a possible issue since I wasn’t “de-fronting” the room, but this made it worse. I’ve had to let a couple students “get a lower number” (1-4) so they’re closer to the front (again sabotaging myself, as I don’t know if they’re all being honest). However, some students have simply started moving closer to the front (or to my computer) for when I’m doing an example, and returning afterwards. Words cannot describe how grateful I am to them making the effort.

5) Desk Numbers. I could not have anticipated this problem in a million years. End of September, student comes in, I hand them a “5”. They don’t know where group 5 is, and no other students can help, because they don’t know either, and where is 7 again? The layout: HAS. NOT. CHANGED. ALL. MONTH. 1-2-3-4 across the front, 5-6-7 through the middle, 8-9-10 across the back. I understand still not being sure the second week. But apparently, I can learn the names of students who are constantly shifting positions and attendance days FASTER than the students themselves are able to assign my specific values to fixed positions of unmoving objects. Do. Not. Understand.

(I had considered revising the numbering system of desks at one point, to get at anyone trying to “game” the system... number “1” isn’t at the front anymore! Thank goodness I didn’t implement this. I think there would have been riots.)

Add to ALL of those issues a couple guys who stubbornly resist my attempts to transplant them. I’ve spoken with one, he’s adamant about not engaging with people unless they approach him, and wants that particular desk. I’ve approached this from multiple angles, including saying how it bothers me, and ultimately I’ve decided do not have the energy for this daily battle. There’s also times when I feel like some of the same people have ended up together, but my memory isn’t completely certain, so I’ve avoided complaint.

In short, after six weeks, I’m kind of battered and broken.

What Did Work

All of THAT said, I feel like there have been, and are, some benefits to keeping this going. I’ve already touched on a bit of it above. Namely:

1) Forces more interaction. Not just with others, but also with me. The first week, I was having to go around to each table for names, and to get numbers. Now, if I’m not getting numbers, I know I’m not necessarily getting around to everyone. (I’m also potentially letting them get away with seating a ‘2’ a ‘6’ and a ‘7’ at the same desks. Seriously, guys?) I also feel like there’s more interaction... though that may just be someone going over to their friend to ask something rather than engaging at their seat. It’s kind of hard to tell, so I’m trying to be optimistic. I do know that once when a guy was sitting alone, and I said he could move, and he didn’t, someone else went to join him. That made me happy.

2) Creates community. In that all of them are simultaneously annoyed with me and how I’m implementing things - aka, I have united them together against me. Okay, maybe it’s not quite that bad (though they’re certainly united in not knowing where “group 7” is), but there isn’t really a “pocket area” of the classroom that people do or don’t want to be in. One thing that drove me nuts last year was spatial cliques in my Data Management class. This year, there’s maybe some stigma on individuals (I’ll have to work on that) but not on whole groups (not that I’ve noticed). There’s also the fact that taking the numbers has become a routine thing upon entry, which is probably not a bad way to start a class.

3) Promotes adaptability. In the sense of dealing with new peers, as well as being close to the board one day, then further the next. Plus if someone realizes they need to be away from a “friend” to get work done at some point, I’ve given them a good reason why they can’t sit together. (The flip side is if someone does want to work with someone who helps them, I’ve prevented that too, sigh. But maybe in the long run it’s better to have options? Though I’ve been a bit flexible on consulting when starting on the homework too.) Even attempts at “gaming my system” is forcing them to adapt so that they can sabotage effectively. Yay?

So that’s where I’m at. If you have any thoughts, let me know!

To conclude, just a couple things that I haven’t yet mentioned:
Back of class view
-The couple times I’ve been away, I haven’t been able to leave a seating plan (obviously) and have tried to explain in my notes to the substitute/on-call. No major complaints yet.
-The one day I allow as an exception to randomization is the review day before a test. They can even redesign the room at that point if they want, work in a group of 5, or 1, whatever helps them to understand the material better. I figure it’s not bad to shake up the usual routine.
-You may have noticed in the image above that every group has two desks with bolted chairs, and a free floating chair. You go with the materials you’re given. I have not tried to gather statistics on which student prefers which type, but do wonder about it on occasion. (Also, the actual desk positions do seem to migrate a few centimetres every week. Okay then.)


  1. Have you tried using an on-line group maker? Avoids the need to be at the door at he beginning of class. Just a thought...

    1. Sometimes I'm not at the door because I'm at the computer... though I guess the idea has potential - I just worry about revamping everything now. (Yet why not repair a broken system? There's the effort needed, and I guess the fact that some students are still on board with me, it just doesn't seem like a majority are.) There's also the few people who legit need to be in certain spots, which I suspect would be a programming annoyance.
      I initially responded here on Twitter, and a few people chimed in with software programs, so for those of you playing at home:
      From Mary,
      From Dave Lanovaz: