The first thing I look at when deciding how I will divide a big group into micro-groups is the purpose of the grouping. For instance, do I want heterogeneous or homogeneous groups? Do I want groups to have a certain composition or is random grouping best? Do learners need certain expertise to do some of the tasks and should this expertise be present in each group? The answers to these questions will guide the choice of a grouping activity.
Here I present some activities for forming micro-groups. I will classify them in 3 categories: random, purposeful, and topical grouping methods.
Find pictures or cartoons and cut them into three or four pieces depending on whether you want to form groups of three or four participants. If you do not have the time to find good images then you can use patterned paper, or any card (postcards, playing cards, etc.).
Distribute one image per participant.
Ask participants to find the other two or three participants who have the pieces needed to reconstitute the “puzzle”.
Set up the space so that participants can move around, mime and see each other.
Make a set of cards with the names or images of different items (for example trees or animals, or historic figures…) corresponding to the number of participants and groups you wish to have. It helps if the cards depict items or people that have something to do with the topic of your lesson.
Each participant receives a card with let’s say the name of a bird on it (e.g. owl, cuckoo, seagull, parakeet).
Each participant has to find the two or three other participants with the same bird, using only mime.
The participants who have the same bird form a group.
Tell participants that for this activity ‘No one is allowed to speak or write!’
Ask participants to line up by their date of birth (month and day – not year). January is at one end of the line and December at the other end.
Once they are lined up, check that the line up is correct by asking each participant to say their date of birth. The group members can make corrections in the line as needed.
Now count heads, or cut the line to divide the line in micro-groups (e.g. for a group of 16 participants that I wish to divide in groups of 4 members, I count heads from 1 to 4 going from one end of the line to the other. Participants can then gather in 4 groups according to their assigned group number).
This is not entirely a random grouping since you might end up with a ‘horoscopic’ hetero or homogeneity in the groups.
Ask participants to place themselves on a line according to their self-appraisal about their proficiency or skill in a certain field or their opinion about a controversial topic (e.g. ‘if you think you are very good at ICT place yourself on the line here, if you know nothing about ICT place yourself here, if you are somewhere in between place yourself along the line).
Once everyone has chosen their place, ask participants to ‘fold the line’.
Break up the folded line into groups of four. You now have 2 very heterogeneous groups and one slightly heterogeneous one!
You may adapt the puzzle activity and choose images that are related to the topic of the activity you are grouping for. For example, if you are addressing prevention of discrimination, you can download humorous cartoons (many are available online) depicting discrimination.
Gradually, as one gains practice in grouping, one realises the enormous potential purposeful grouping has for facilitation, collective intelligence, and enhancing ideation and collaboration.
For instance, some time ago, I was in charge of a group of teachers working on secondary school curriculum design: the aim was to get designers to collaborate outside of subject matter silos and help them get acquainted with 3 different and complex competence models. Complex multi-stage groupings in 2 rounds allowed us to attain this goal as shown in the images below:
Without going into details about this particular case, the diagram above shows how grouping, when taken seriously, can become a very strong tool in the satchel of anyone who is an intentional facilitator.
To end, I would like to add that no matter what grouping technique you use, appropriate set ups for efficient group work always include roles for members.
When each member has a specific role in a group activity, this supports individual accountability, constructive interdependence, responsibility and equal access to learning.
Here is an example of an easy way to set up roles in your groups. Naturally, this is only an example as roles depend on what tasks are at hand and what is needed to cooperate towards the set goals. As a principle, micro-group roles are always designed for a member of a micro-group to help the other members of the micro-group “do” and “act” together rather than “do” and “act” on his/her own.
Group Member Roles
Put four colour markers on the micro-groups’ tables.
When each group is constituted, they join at one table and each member picks up a marker.
The colour of their marker determines their role. For example:
Blue – Tracers: the task of the Tracer is to facilitate the group process. S/he has to keep the group hot on the trail, on the given task. For example, s/he makes sure that the steps are summarised to help move on with the task.
Red – Encouragers: the task of the Encourager is to ensure equal access and participation for all the group members. S/he is a practical helper, who has to ensure that everybody contributes to the work equally. For example, s/he may encourage silent members to express themselves and talkative members to “rest” if needed.
Yellow – Timers: the task of the Timer is to help the micro-group be on time by finding common solutions, and help the group find efficient ways to complete its task on time. For example, s/he helps micro-group members find quicker ways to carry out their activity.
Green – Writers: the task of the Writer is to ensure that every group member’s voice is taken into account and recorded. S/he makes sure each member has written something on the final document.