Creative Grouping Can Promote Critical Thinking

Creative grouping can maximize instructional time for Common Core standards. Having students organize themselves using criteria from the Common Core can be an effective way to promote critical thinking.


Algebra is now included in the Common Core for sixth grade math, which I love because I taught Algebra I in eighth grade for over 20 years. The challenge for me has been how to fit it all in and find ways to make abstract ideas more concrete for younger students.

I first used this creative grouping strategy to introduce the notion of simplifying algebraic expressions by combining like terms. I cut in half the 4 x 6 index cards we use for our math word wall words and wrote an algebraic term on each card. Because there are eight tables in my room I created 8 sets of 3 like terms to accommodate groups of three students at each table.

I handed each student a term as they entered the room, telling them to get into groups with their “like terms.”

What happened next was amazing. I stood and watched as they immediately began looking for their partners. They were talking about math, processing information, classifying, and organizing from the minute they entered the room.

By the end of the day, I had witnessed the same thing in all four math classes. Students sat with their “like terms” that day and had the opportunity to work with students other than those in their regular support groups. They seemed to enjoy the change - so much so that I decided to use the creative grouping strategy to highlight other concepts as well.

  • Equivalent measurements – Example: 36 inches, 3 feet, 1 yard
  • Equivalent fractions –Example: ½, 3/6, 4/8
  • Percent/decimal/fraction – Example: .4, 40%, 40/100

This idea could be particularly well adapted to language arts and reading. Students could group themselves by:

  • Beginning/ending sounds
  • Parts of speech
  • Rhyming words
  • Prefixes/suffixes
  • Synonyms/antonyms


The size of student groups will be determined by factors such as class size, room size, type of activity, and available furniture and equipment. The daily cooperative learning groups in my current classroom consist of three students because of the size and number of the round tables in my room. When I had 35 students in a small eighth grade classroom, we worked in groups of four because it was the only way I could fit them all in there!

Return to Cooperative Learning from Creative Grouping

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Benefits of Group Work

The first year after I converted from desks and rows to group work, I was absolutely stunned at the improvement my kids showed on their standardized test in the area of vocabulary development.Their scores soared!

It had not occurred to me that students would learn so many words from each other! What happened was that they gleaned new words from each student with whom they worked that year, and my goal was for every student to work with every other student in a group at least once during the year.

They also reported to me that they made more friends that year than in any year previously. According to them, they talked to people they would not ordinarily have talked to, and when they got to know them, they found that they were not so different after all.

I learned more than my students did that year, and I never went back to desks and rows.