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Why Not Random Groups?

If you teach a class where you have lots of group activities, as I do, you inevitably face the issue of how to divide the class up. If your class already clumps into prickly social pods, then letting them group themselves risks replicating the same social order. But if you assign regular groups yourself, then you risk having the groups get stale. And besides, what criteria do you go by? If you design groups to break up cliques, then resentment at being tragically torn from their friends will erupt. If you group by some assessment of student competence, then resentment at being labeled will erupt (because they WILL figure it out). And if you carefully plan the groups to ensure a mix of strengths and conversational approaches, with the enlightened idea that the strong and talkative can bring the weak and introverted to the promised land of fulfilling group engagement . . . well, I’ll mention my high school daughter’s experience. Combo strong/weak groups are the bane of her school life these days because she, one of the strong, engaged ones, ends up “doing all the work.” She prefers the classes where she can be in a stimulating group, but of course that’s an all-strong group, and we’ve already noted the problem with that! Let’s face it: teacher experiments in social engineering rarely end well.

So what’s the answer? I say, call on the Fates, or as the gamers would put it: rely on the RNG (random number generation), changing things up each and every day. Sometimes I just use the old standby “we need six groups, so count out to six” approach, being careful to vary the number of groups and the person who starts the count to avoid student manipulation (though who is going to sit six spots away from a friend to be paired with them in a group?) Or, if I’m feeling especially geeky, I put the sequence generator at random.org (it’s a thing) up on the screen and have it play the role of Fate. The effect of this is a bit akin to social Russian roulette—my students are riveted with suspense. Why not try it yourself?

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