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Are we using whole group instruction more than ever?

By December 21, 2012June 13th, 201612 Comments

In McREL’s Power Walkthrough® training, we teach school leaders how to capture key instructional indicators in the classroom, such as what strategies are utilized, how to determine if the students are learning, and how students are grouped. Around this time every year, we examine our Power Walkthrough data from K–12 classrooms all over the world and in a variety of school settings (e.g., urban, rural, public, independent) to see the emerging trends and patterns in the collected data.

This year, we noticed an interesting trend when we looked at the student “grouping” data. In this portion of Power Walkthrough, the observer notes whether students are all focused on one source of instruction (whole
group), if they are working alone (individual), if they are working with one other person (pairs), if they are working in informal groups of three to five (small group), or if they are working in highly organized groups with individual
roles and responsibilities (cooperative group). While individual, small group, pairs, and cooperative groups have fluctuated or have only changed incrementally, it seems that Power Walkthrough users are recording an increase in whole group instruction over the past two years. This is surprising given that so much of “21st century” or “student-centered” learning touts reducing whole group instruction.

Below are two comparison charts that show these data that are based on 99,136 walkthroughs in 2010–2012.




While we can make a few assumptions about these data, there are a few caveats to consider: Some observers may be different due to job changes and additional clients; schools may have differing criteria of cooperative learning; and many schools use their own templates while these data are from our template. Regardless, though, this trend sparks questions about how we are using instruction and student grouping in our classrooms now and
into the future. Consider the following as conversation starters in your school:

  1. Students working individually were observed six percent less in 2012 than in 2010. Is this a positive or negative statistic?
  2. We were very surprised to see that whole group instruction had grown. Is this indicative that we are lecturing more? If so, what would cause us to do so?
  3. Does the nominal growth in small group instruction indicate a shift towards more collaborative and informal learning environments?
  4. Do these trends hold true in your school? What questions do these data spark for you?

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Sarah says:

    I think this is an interesting trend. I believe this is an indication of a classroom crisis that needs to be addressed. Classroom sizes and budget cuts are negatively affecting students ability to learn in a more individualizes basis. We, as teachers, are always told to adjust our teachings to fit every student, how are we to do this with more and more whole group instruction?

  • Rachel says:

    When I first read the title of this article, Are we using whole group instruction more than ever?, I was expecting to read an article that showed an increase of small group instruction, however, this was not the case. While most teachers these days recognize the importance of small group instruction and individualized learning, the fact that class sizes are increasing cannot be ignored as well. I would be interested to see the data include more years of data collection. How much have these numbers increased or decreased in the last 10-15 years?

  • samuel baamafel says:

    i too am curious as to why the whole group percent has increases?

  • Cindy Kuegeman says:

    My school uses whole group instruction in every grade from K-8! I think it is time for a change! I have several different learning levels in my class and I need to differentiate instruction. You are right-we as educators need to be able to teach every student and whole group instruction does not do this!

  • Hollie says:

    I wish there was an article about small group instruction gaining ground in the classroom. I agree with budget cuts and more students in a class it is really hard to squeeze in that small group instruction. I teach in the Turks & Caicos Islands public school system. And although small group instruction is needed I don’t have the time nor the space to conduct it. I am actually limited to a space issue. Along with resource issue as well. I can find and house the resources for the small group instruction but to get all the small groups area to use is the issue. I worked in MDCPS in South Florida for 5 years and I can tell you small group instruction works and when done everyday it really pays off with meeting children’s needs.It saddens me that I can’t introduce my class here to it, I am working with a small group at a time but even then its gets kind of cramped. So my class usually gets whole group instruction then I work one to one with those who are struggling.

  • Raylene says:

    Interesting article. Perhaps larger class sizes are contributing to this trend. If this is the case, it may be easier for some teachers to teach and monitor a large amount of students. The data does correlate to when many districts started making budget cuts.

  • Susan Stock says:

    The same excuses for having more large group instruction have been around for years. Time and class size. I have used cooperative groups in all size of classes and it makes my work so much more student centered, the students love it and are more interactive. It takes planning time and I think teachers in general, like the large group so that they can spend less time planning. That’s not best for students though. It’s time to run your classroom efficiently,consider it a business. Think of your customer, not what’s easiest.

  • This is definitely a trend in the primary grades, but I disagree with the first poster that it is because whole group instruction is easier. In reality, it is not because children are more likely to become disengaged as they are presented with material that is not within their zone of proximal development.
    I also don’t think it is because of class size, unless a classroom runs over 30 children and a teacher is on his or her own.. If your management (not discipline) is excellent then you can effectively run a classroom with multiple small groups.
    What I see is that it often comes down to two things: time and testing. All students have to know the same material and it all must be taught by a certain date. Unfortunately, many states/countries have made it a necessity to revert to more whole group instruction (by their mandates) in order to at least cover the material that is going to be tested and reported to the public.

  • Stacie says:

    Remember that these observations are made from random walk-throughs. I typically utilize all of the above mentioned strategies throughout the week. If my principal happens to only walk through my room on the group instruction section (which is rarely more than 10-15 minutes), he checks “group instruction” on his observation sheet and walks out. Not to say the above data is invalid, but it only displays a small slice of what is going on in our classrooms.

  • Melissa says:

    I am surprised that whole group instruction has sparked an increase. My experience throughout education as a learner and educator is that small group instruction has been gaining popularity. In my school (K-5), I have noticed that small group instruction is more common in the younger grades. I find this interesting because small group instruction generally requires other students to be learning independently. I would think this would be easier for the higher grades.
    I’m very encouraged to read some of the previous comments about small group instruction in large class sizes (30 or more). I’m glad so many teachers are not using the excuse of “whole group instruction is easier for large classes”. I think small group instruction is more effective for the learners and the teacher.
    I think one legitimate excuse for not using small groups could be lack of resources. Do classrooms have enough math manipulatives for every student in a small group to participate? Are their enough books? Are teachers equipped to keep all students engaged in active learning rather than just occupied with busywork?

  • Jane Milton says:

    Interesting data, thank you. However, I’m not sure I understand the categories. Couldn’t a ‘small group’ or ‘pair’ also be a collaborative group?

  • Hi Jane,
    Yes, a pair or small group is a collaborative group, but not necessarily a formal Cooperative Group. McREL’s definition of formal cooperative groups is that the group must have interdependence (all members must fulfill their role in order for the project to be successful) and that individuals as well as the group are assessed via a rubric, checklist, etc.
    For more information, you may want to watch this “Quick Tip” video by CITW co-author Bj Stone on Cooperative Learning:
    Thanks for your question!

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