Small Group Learning - What's the Big Deal?

Laura Head

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Small group learning has a good reputation. As long as the resources can be afforded, the pod-style setting comes preferred to large classes. And the logic comes easy, too - smaller groups means less kid-driven chaos, a more organized work space, more learning resources per learner.

But the benefits of small group learning go beyond convenience. Especially in early education, kids who are part of small groups benefit from enriched opportunities towards their social, academic, and development.

For these reasons, teaching in small group or “pod” arrangements have been on the rise - particularly in private and independent settings where resources are sufficient. As school closures persist and parents continue to work from home, the need to put early learners in more engaging learning environments is greater than ever.

Many teachers, too, have recently opted out of teaching in a traditional classroom for a smaller group setting. Online or in person, teachers are fleeing the public school system to set up independent pod formations.

Why, particularly in a time of pandemic panic and health concerns, are educators and kids breaking off?

Small class sizes means more undivided teacher- and peer-time, differentiated curriculum, and for many, more opportunities for community engagement.

More Student-Teacher Interaction

Once while I was in the classroom, I led a mini-lesson on fractions and then gave my 31 students an “exit-ticket” problem. Their job was to solve it on their little whiteboard and hold it in the air so that I could take a look, confirm their comprehension, and send them on to independent work.

On average, I would approximate that each student that morning got 1 second of my attention during group time. Probably less.

Leading a little pod means more interaction time per student.

And that’s great news. A lot of studies show that a strong teacher-student relationship is the very foundation to feeling a sense of belonging and to making more strides in learning - particularly for younger and at-risk students.

A pod-size class also gives teachers the presence of mind to cash in on teachable moments. A row between two classmates can be an opportunity for teaching social skills; a math challenge can be a chance to model resilience; A question on homework can lead to a thought experiment on personal responsibility.

Stronger Interpersonal Relationships

The larger our social circle is, the less time we have to develop meaningful friendships - and science shows that it’s the quality, and not the quantity, that counts.

Being a student in a 4-5 head pod leaves an opportunity to build positive and enriching relationships with their few other peers. The small group spends their day in a safe, nurturing environment with the same faces, which gives them ample time to grow close, build trust, and value one another. Like teacher-student relationships, peer relationships are a cornerstone of developmental growth, academic success, and a sense of belonging.

Lest we forget, strong friendships are the gift that keeps on giving, too; ties that bind build higher self-esteem, lead to fewer health problems, and a longer life.

More Enriching Authentic Learning Experiences

What about beyond the four walls of the classroom?

Project- and community-based learning is shown to improve self-efficacy, social skills, and provide better connectivity to the real-world (As a forever Reggio Emilia and Waldorf stan, these pedagogies are right within my wheelhouse). Pursuing these new-age teaching styles becomes a whole lot easier with just a handful of kids. Goodbye distractions of teacher-to-student ratios, extracurriculars, and snacktime. Hello, experiential learning.

Leading small groups of children makes it easier to book and visit local establishments, learn about what is going on in the community firsthand, and play an active role. Suddenly we’re a lively and enthusiastic little bunch, and not a tsunamis of unbridled energy.

Even outdoor projects avail themselves more readily to small groups. Seasonally, we do a lot of nature exploration: Garden growing, beetle collecting, and the seminal observation of caterpillar-to-butterfly. Can we do it as a large class? Sure. Would it be easier to do without feet stepping in garden beds and hands clamoring for fragile butterfly wings? Also yes.

Curricula that Follows Kids’ Needs

Least restrictive environment is a particularly teacher-y concept that often guides student independence in the classroom. You assume autonomy for your student and let her thrive. If she wavers, scaffold in supports progressively until you’ve found the right balance.

As teachers, we like to do this behaviorally, but also academically. We aspire to find the curricula that will introduce content, and will also give students space to become critical and free thinkers, develop resilience in their learning, take risks and learn from their mistakes.

A Herculean task when you are in a class with 30 kids.

But with a small class, it’s a realistic goal to build a flexible and emergent curriculum that is responsive to the child’s individual needs

Final Thoughts

The National Organization for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the most nationally-recognized early childhood research, policy, and advocacy center, defines developmentally appropriate practices as “methods that promote each child’s optimal development and learning through a strengths-based, play-based approach to joyful, engaged learning. Educators implement developmentally appropriate practice by recognizing the multiple assets all young children bring to the early learning program as unique individuals and as members of families and communities.”

One pillar in particular - the one that emphasizes the individual child - is something that often takes the backburner to group needs in many early childhood settings. Pods speak to the needs of each unique child.

With just a few minds to enrich, you as the teacher are able to focus on student observation and assessment, tailoring curriculum to the child’s best fit. You’re able to listen in and respond to her own ideas, take from nuanced perspectives of development that may go unnoticed in a larger group, and provide continuity in your support so that each learner meets their potential. You're able to maximize opportunities for academic enrichment.

And as a teacher, small group learning makes for some of my favorite moments in the classroom. I think often of one moment in particular, when I had the means to touch base with a learner that I hadn’t really spoken to all week. One-on-one, she became dynamic in her story telling, explaining that she’d recently gone shopping with her mom, and together they’d also bathed their new dog. A banal history to some, the shared moment gave me insight into her home life, an understanding of the things that make her happy, and a chance to validate her experiences and build rapport. It’s the little things.

Implementing small class sizes is not just about relieving the teacher of stress and finding your educational zen - It’s about creating an environment for students where they’re able to make more meaningful strides in their development and reach their potential as curious and resilient learners.

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Passionate educator writing insights on learning, sharing travel thoughts, and whatever else comes to mind. Founder of Heads Up Learning, K-12 educator, blogger, and ☕️ addict.

New York City, NY
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