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10 Reasons to Use Heterogeneous Teams

Updated: Mar 31, 2021

In the #Kagan approach to #cooperativelearning, we advocate that the base team’s students spend the majority of their time sitting with and working with are heterogeneous. Mixed teams are another way to say heterogeneous teams. Heterogeneous teams, or mixed teams, are student teams that are mixed by student achievement level, sex, and race. That means we have boys and girls, students of different colours representing the diversity we have in our classroom, and students at varying ability levels—all on the same team. Set aside for a moment the nuts and bolts of exactly how we accomplish that, and let's focus on why. Why are mixed teams preferred over random teams, or self-selected teams, or homogeneous teams?

Over the years as I've led cooperative learning workshops, teachers/educators have often questioned my preference for heterogeneous teams. Some even believe cooperative learning would be more effective with homogeneous teams or random teams. This worries me. In my view, it is pretty much undermining cooperative learning. Let me give you 10 reasons I advocate heterogeneous teams.

  1. Research Base: Almost all of the empirical research on cooperative learning has been done with heterogeneous teams. There is strong research support that shows mixed teams outperform students working independently. Random and homogeneous do not have the same empirical base.

  2. Loser Teams: Same ‘ability’ teams result in teams with the four lowest achieving students on same team. Random teams can create the same low ability teams completely by chance. In contrast, carefully assigned teams structure for success by teaming low students with high students, increasing the probability of successful tutoring.

  3. Problem Teams: A random team can result in the four biggest management/behaviour problem students all on the same team. Heterogeneous teams usually avoid these pitfalls by placing a high achiever on each team. High achievers are generally (not always) less prone to discipline problems.

  4. Smoother Classroom Management: Heterogeneous teams help with classroom management. By having the top quarter of the class spread out, one per team, someone on each team is likely to be able to explain directions and keep the team on task.

  5. Self-Esteem: Homogeneous teams creates winner and loser teams. I did a research study years ago on a classic cooperative learning method called TGT. TGT has a bumping system. Each week students leave their learning teams and go to tournament tables, three per table. If they win, they bring 6 points back to their team, least points gets 2 points to bring back, the other student 4. The bumping system equalises competition because the losers go to a lower achieving table and the winners move up. Over time students all bring back the same amount of points. The surprise was that lower achieving students dropped in self-esteem. Even though everyone was bringing back the same amount of points, the low achievers knew they were going to the loser tables. It is the same with homogeneous teams. The low achieving students feel like losers. Same thing results when we have high, medium, and low reading groups. We create status and esteem problems.

  6. Thinking Skills: Heterogeneous teams maximise the opportunity to learn different thinking skills. The more there is diversity, the more we can learn from each other. By explaining to a student who is thinking differently about a problem or issue, a student is challenged to stretch or cement his/her own learning.

  7. Peer Tutoring: Peer tutoring is often most effective when we have a more capable tutor. The more capable tutor can help the less capable partner or teammates. The great thing about peer tutoring is that the tutor often gains at least as much as the tutee. Teaching the content cements it in the minds of the tutors.

  8. Race Relations: Heterogeneous teams improve race relations. When we have students of different races form strong bonds with their teammates through teambuilding and shared goals, we have gone a long way to eradicate racism. Students learn to see classmates of other races as allies, not enemies. They get to know each other for the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin.

  9. Social and Leadership Skills: Heterogeneous teams improve everyone's social skills, especially the social skills of high achievers. By definition, high achievers have no problem with academic content. Their greatest area for growth is often in interpersonal relationships. In mixed teams, high achievers learn to coach, encourage, praise, tutor, and they learn patient waiting. Our high achievers learn to be leaders by practising their leadership skills in their teams.

  10. It Works: In the decades that I've been working with schools and clusters, I've been advocating heterogeneous teams. We've had countless success stories of schools making dramatic gains using heterogeneous cooperative learning teams.

With all the positive benefits of heterogeneous teams, the question is not why use heterogeneous teams. The question is why not? As for how to best create heterogenous teams, I refer you to the book, Kagan Cooperative Learning and encourage the use of TeamTools, probably the easiest way to form and reform heterogeneous teams.

To cite this article: Kagan, S. 10 Reasons to Use Heterogeneous Teams San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Fall 2014/Winter 2015.

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