Let the Bag decide... random groupings in the classroom

A while ago my wife (who is quite the seamstress and crafter) was experimenting with a new type of canvas she bought and she made this bag as a test prototype for something larger.

[caption id="attachment_1340" align="alignleft" width="240"] The Bag[/caption]

She was unimpressed with this design but it sparked ideas for something else.  I have always been a garbage hunter my whole life, so I took this bag into my class to find a new use for it.  At the beginning of the year I found it in the bottom of my desk and decided to use it for our random groupings bag.  On a math hexagon, I wrote each students name and places it in the bad.  I had originally planned on using it every once and a while to assign random groups for projects and possible seating arrangements.  I had no idea it would evolve into what it has become in our classroom.  The bag has become a supernatural being.  It decides arguments.  It makes groups.  It assigns seats.  It chooses what to do on free time.  Whenever the decision process comes to a standstill, we let the bag decide....

Random Groupings

This summer, I was listening to a speech given by mathematics super educator/researcher Peter Liljedahl from Simon Fraser University.  He stated that completely random groupings were more efficient than assigned groups.  I had been using quasi-random groups until this point, with the occasional spattering of a completely random group.  I wanted to know the research behind it so I shot him off an email asking for a bit more information.  He responded with a chapter of a book that he was writing on the subject.  Unfortunately, I cannot link to it since it is not yet published, but here is the quote at the beginning that basically sums up the findings.
Results indicate that the use of visibly random grouping strategies, along with ubiquitous group work, can lead to: (1) students becoming agreeable to work in any group they are placed in, (2) the elimination of social barriers within the classroom, (3) an increase in the mobility of knowledge between students, (4)a decrease in reliance on the teacher for answers, (5) an increase in the reliance on co-constructed intra- and inter-group answers, and (6) an increase in both enthusiasm for mathematics class and engagement in mathematics tasks.

Who wouldn't want that?  I think to important take aways from this are; visibly random grouping strategies (the kids have to know it is random) and ubiquitous group work (group work has to be a major part of life in the classroom).

Reflecting on this before the year started, I was having difficulties giving up that control.  In my head, I still wanted to keep certain students apart, or put certain students together, because I thought it would be best.  I constructed a model of how we could use random groupings but interjections from me.  I was ready for the school year to start.  Then, I found the Bag.

I don't know what it is about this bag, the pattern, the fact that my wife made it, the imperfections in the seams?  I just like it.  It is beautiful.  I decided that I would put all the chips I use for deciding groups into this bag and keep it on my desk.  Before the first dy of school I made a bold promise to myself.  I would use this bag to select groups all the time for projects.  Sticking to it was easier than I anticipated.  Perhaps it was how well this groups works together, or the atmosphere of the class, but I found that I did not have the issues that I thought I would have with random groups.  The engagement was there.

So, I decided to push it further.  The bag started to be used to decide seats.  Before the kids enter the class every morning I chose a name out of the bag and place it on the table and that is the seat for the day.  Even this evolved, it has turned into a once a day thing, into a three or four times a day thing.  After recess the seats are changed.  After lunch they change.  Sometimes, in the middle of class they change.  Sometimes, we are working with the same group (that the Bag chose of course) for the entire day.  The kids ask for the Bag to decide games at recess, or what to do during free time, or who likes who games (grade 5 and 6, what can I say?).  If there is a dispute and the Bag is used to moderate, the decision of the Bagis like the law.  One does not argue with the Bag.

[caption id="attachment_1342" align="alignright" width="225"]Hanging proudly on our tree, in the center of class Hanging proudly on our tree, in the center of class[/caption]

Here are some things I have noticed since I started this idea at the beginning of the year.  These, at least to my group, have been the main benefits of randomized groups:

Any group needs a great deal of redundancy to work well together.  A shared language, culture, and interests.  However, the same groups also need diversity to be creative.  Back when I chose the groups, I was deciding the diversity of a group.  The bag, doesn't care.  It forces the diversity.  It brings it to the front.  It forces you to think critically of how we differ from each other and how those differences will lead to new and creative ideas.  This has led to a meta-awareness in our class of how we are in a group; what is my learning style?  What am I like to work with?  How do I gel and blend with other people?  How do I work with those those do not gel and blend with me?  The self reflection that that bag has provided the atmosphere for has been amazing.  The kids understand themselves better, and they understand how they operate with others.  They are adjusting their temperaments and behaviors to fit those new members of their group (not all the time, but gradually this class is becoming much more collective than fragmented).  Some of the rivalries that existed amongst students are disappearing slowly.

If I take it back to Liljedahl's findings from his research, I see that it in indeed happening in my class as well.

(1) students becoming agreeable to work in any group they are placed in (Defiantly!  Not just that, meta-aware of how they work with others and able to speak about that awareness)

(2) the elimination of social barriers within the classroom (I see friendships forming and an openness with others, and I know the Bag is not responsible for all of it, but it certainly plays a role.  How big of a role..... not sure that can ever be measured, but I have a instinct that it is important..)

(3) an increase in the mobility of knowledge between students (defiantly, working with everybody and the chaotic nature of switching places and groups has led to an understanding of who knows what, what everybody's strengths are, and if I need help with something I know how to go to to get it)

(4) a decrease in reliance on the teacher for answers (not sure about this one, because it is just my style not to be too helpful in the first place!  The kids in my class are getting better at not asking, but not sure if there is anything to do with the Bag.  My instinct says no...)

(5) an increase in the reliance on co-constructed intra- and inter-group answers (for sure, even thought they are in groups, they are constantly bouncing back and forth to help each other, and using ideas that others groups form.  I believe this is directly related to the understanding of their different styles of learning that the bag has forced on them)

(6) an increase in both enthusiasm for mathematics class and engagement in mathematics tasks (not sure what the role the groupings play in this since group work is ubiquitous in my class to begin with)

All in all, I feel that the bag has really shaped our environment.  It has been a powerful force and has created opportunities for us to learn from each other, and most importantly, about each other and ourselves.

The random groupings are here to stay...



  1. Desiree finestone21.10.12

    Who would have thought a simple bag could have such power? Wonderful idea. Like the fact that no one argues with the 'bag's decisions'. Great way to sort out random groupings and to 'eliminate social barriers' that exist in all classrooms. I have an ugly, but quite beautiful bright orange bag I made in primary school. This bag emigrated with me from South Africa 26 years ago. It's home has always been in a cupboard in my garage. Little does my bright orange bag know that its new home will be in my classroom from tomorrow to brighten our learning environment!

  2. Marta van der Meer24.10.12

    Greetings from Amsterdam!

    I am so intrigued by your post..Thank you. I am now on the hunt for a bag that will work. I know my students will embrace this - love it..

    Very curious to read Peter L.'s book now as well. When do you think that it will be ready for purchase?

    Oh, and I think spell check didn't help out so much as I found myself saying "definitely" but reading "defiantly" (which did make me giggle).

    Thank you again for sharing.

  3. DwyerTeacher24.10.12

    Hahaha! You are right Marta. Spell-check fail. I will leave the mistake, in the name of History! Thanks for the nice comments.


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