Full Class? Small Group? How Do You Decide?

Yesterday, we had a wonderful PA Day focusing on math. We started the day by watching this fantastic TEDx Talk by Jo Boaler all about math and the value of a growth mindset. 

It’s a talk that I think all educators, parents, and students need to hear to help change some perceptions around math. I thought of this talk a lot as we then moved into small group sessions that all focused on creating better math classrooms.

One of our sessions was on number talks. Please note here that I’m a big fan of number talks. I’ve used them in different ways in multiple grades and with much success. I think they help build students’ understanding of numbers and belief that there’s more than one way to solve problems. Compared to other times that I’ve participated in sessions on number talks, I was now doing so through the lens of a Kindergarten teacher with a new program document that emphasizes the importance of teaching literacy and math skills through play and reducing the time for full class instruction. Where do number talks fit into this?

During this session, we watched two Kindergarten number talks. The discussion around recognizing groups of up to 10 was fantastic, but both talks were done with the full class, on the carpet, for almost 10 minutes, and totally removed from the context of play. Here is what I observed as I watched the video clips.

  • Many students recognized the number amounts and could explain their thinking.
  • Some students determined the total in more than one way.
  • While many students were highly engaged in the lesson, some students were not involved at all. 

It’s this final point that really has me thinking. Instead of pulling the full class for these number talks, I wonder about doing them in small groups. What if they were linked to some of the math learning that’s happening through play and occurred around the time that these math skills were demonstrated? What if they aligned with where each child is at and what each child needs to move forward? While I’m sure that some students benefited from watching and listening to others participate, I wonder about those students for which this was way too difficult — past the zone of proximal development. What did they get out of this activityI also wonder about those students that have already mastered these targeted skills and may need to move onto something else. What was the value for them? 

I can’t help but think again about Boaler’s TEDx Talk. If we want to create entry points for all students, how are we doing so with this task? I also think about two key ideas in our new program document:

  • noticing and naming the learning.
  • constantly questioning, “why this learning, for this child, at this time?”

If we start by observing this math behaviour through play, naming it for children, and then extending it with discussions around subitizing skills, would this benefit children more? If we are really asking ourselves, “why this learning, for this child, at this time?,” would we choose a full class lesson as the best way to meet various needs or would we look at small group options instead? During this Number Talks session, we had some discussions around the questions that I’m raising here, and as expected, people expressed many different viewpoints.

While I raise these points from a Kindergarten perspective, I wonder if they apply to just Kindergarten. This morning, I met an acquaintance of mine for brunch, and she started to talk to me about “small group instruction.” She said that many educators she knows don’t pull small groups because they “don’t have time.” This is when I asked, “what if we replaced full class lessons with small group instruction? Would this better benefit kids?” I can’t help but think about one of my favourite blog posts by Kristi Keery-Bishop, where she discusses the value in letting things go: could some full class instruction be one of these things? As I continue to reflect on my teaching practices, I’m curious to hear what others do and what they think.


6 thoughts on “Full Class? Small Group? How Do You Decide?

  1. Hi Aviva,
    I am a self-professed math geek and I literally spend hours every day thinking about how we can teach it better. In recent years, I have moved towards more of a problem based approach where students do a lot of problem solving in smaller groups. As I observe the groups in action, I can give some small group instruction or nudges in thinking as needed, and we tend to use full group to consolidate and discuss strategies. I think the full group for this purpose is essential because sometimes a group will have a strategy that appeals to a member of a different group and by bringing everyone together, we can see more options and more students will find a strategy that works for them. It seems to develop more open-mindedness in them, especially to this idea that there is a way that everyone can learn and that we don’t all have to approach things in the same way.

    I can admit that the majority of my teaching is with older students. We don’t have “play” so much, but I do try to present some of my problems as puzzles to be solved and to tap into their outside interests. At the kindergarten level though, there are things that might work. One thing that I recently discovered is 10 frame attendance. Another option is the Which One Doesn’t Belong math that is slowly gaining traction. I think I have seen them where there are 4 different Lego pieces or other things that would fit in with students play and might work. It is an activity that would work with small groups.

    My final thought, for now, is to check out #MTBoS. I have found some really brilliant ides there.

    • Thanks for your comment, Melanie! I really enjoyed reading your perspective. What I see from your example is how much “teaching” happens in the small group (through the problem solving), and how the full group sharing is more for consolidation. In this case, there are entry points for all students, as they are sharing different solutions and building off of the ideas of others. I think about how our students share their thinking with the full group, and maybe if some of their sharing connects with math, this could be a good way to extend a math discussion, with multiple entry points, as a full class.

      I have seen the 10 frame attendance before, and we’ve tried a few similar things before related snack time eating and number of students in different groups. Again, this is something that we tend to explore more in a small group. We have used our fingers though to represent different number amounts up to 10. These are the kinds of math activities that we do in a couple of minutes during transition times. Maybe it’s the length of the full class lesson that’s also making me question more. Could a shorter option, but still as a full class, be a better choice? I will check out some of the “Which One Doesn’t Belong” puzzles and see about the possible introduction of something like this in a small group. I guess that I’m still trying to figure out how to link this important direct instruction with the meaningful play-based learning that’s happening in the classroom (and that is emphasized in the new Kindergarten Program Document). These kinds of conversations not only give me more to think about, but also provide some great talking points for our Kindergarten team. Thank you!


      • What if you started it out in the forest with items that you find in your forest classroom? Maybe start with 4 different leaves or 4 different kinds of dirt. It would directly connect to something that they love and talk about already. You could also do it with types of “garbage” if your kids are still on their garbage/recycling kick. Not belonging in a certain spot fits in with that idea perfectly.

        The length of a full class discussion definitely matters, especially with the young age of the kids. Do your kids do a daily “sign in” question? Could you have them pick one that doesn’t belong as they sign in and then just pick them off a couple at a time throughout the day to explain why? Track why and then discuss their answers at the end of the day? There are probably several good ways to do it, and it’s hard for me to guess at what would be best for your students, but I’m glad I could provide some food for thought.

        • Thanks so much for the ideas, Melanie! I love the connections to our current inquiries (and yes, our students are still very interested in garbage). This may be a way to extend the learning that’s already happening and further explore some math concepts at the same time. You’ve definitely given me things to talk about with my teaching partner.

          We don’t do a full class sign in, largely because of our big numbers, but we often have provocations out on the tables or on the shelves around the room. We could use these in one of these areas, and then have some small group discussions as students go to these different areas. We could also invite students to explore these areas at different times during the day. Possibly sharing some of these discussions as we regroup later in the day would work. I like how these ideas connect the play/inquiry with the direct instruction (and provide that context which is so important for our young learners). Many thanks for giving me some more food for thought.


  2. Hi, great blog post! I have been dabbling with open maths learning and two things I keep in mind hen thinking about whole class or group:

    – How can I design scaffolding so that students who are not familiar with the concept yet? This may be using other students to as ‘teachers’ or an introduction that facilitates this or me roving around to check in with short sharp direct instruction.
    – Is there an opportunity for extension for some students? This may be a second part to a task that is optional to complete but I may encourage a few to take part in together then share with the whole class.

    I really enjoy watching the students share their thinking and question each other, but to be honest I haven’t found a perfect system yet- maybe there isn’t..

    • Thanks for your comment, Ximena! I think that these are some great questions to ask. I think that I’m questioning more here for three reasons:

      1) because I want to make sure that the needs of all of the learners are met.
      2) because of the pedagogy that is embedded in our new Kindergarten Program Document: emphasizing that learning happens through play and that math and literacy are not taught in isolation, but through play.
      3) because of our large class numbers (we have 33 students right now), and I wonder about the value of full-class instruction with such a big group.

      Maybe there isn’t a perfect answer here. I do enjoy hearing what others have tried though and the thinking behind their choices. The comments here are giving me more to consider, but I think will also provide some great talking points for me and my teaching partner.


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