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Grouping for effective discussion

In PSHE, the discussion of sensitive content can mean that students are sometimes less likely to talk openly with their peers during their learning. Therefore, when grouping students, there needs to be careful consideration of not only academic abilities but also social and emotional wellbeing and the personal circumstances of the students. This is where teachers’ knowledge of their class will be invaluable to planning grouping, with as much consideration needed as the lesson content itself.  

There are many different grouping techniques you could consider, and the appropriateness of these will vary depending on not only lesson content or activity but also the class dynamic and the individual students. BrainWaves School Liaison Manager, Naomi French, collates some ideas on how best to use group work in your classroom. 


The ‘neighbourhood’ technique

Simply put students in small groups based on who they are sitting near. These may or may not be their friends. This technique works well for students who are perhaps more confident, and is a useful method when you need to group students quickly, perhaps for shorter, snappier, timed discussions. 

You may wish students to spend the lesson in pre-assigned, specific places, using a seating plan, so as to have some control over their grouping. 

Working in pairs

Students are posed a question and then have a direct conversation with the person sitting next to them (their partner). You could use pair discussion to give students a chance to share their ideas with other members of their class. Here are some instructions you could use to facilitate this activity:

  1. Think about the question posed with your partner
  2. Write down you and your partner’s collective thoughts on a post-it note
  3. Put your post-it notes on the table in front of you or on a board at the front
  4. Now, everyone can get up and look at their other classmates’ ideas

It is useful here to have the question displayed on the board, as well as sentence stems that the students can use to structure their discussion with their partner, such as, ‘That’s really interesting – have you considered X?’ or ‘I agree – another example is…’ or ‘Although I understand what you’re saying, I disagree because… what do you think?’ 

As with the previous technique, you could sit your students in places other than their normal seats so that you can dictate who they work with.

Switching partners

Have students stand up and then switch partners. This could be random (if appropriate) by drawing names out of a hat, or based on whether they have had a positive or negative response to the criteria. The criteria could be things like:

  • Do you feel that you have enough good quality sleep? 
  • Do you feel that exercising improves your mood?
  • Do you prefer talking to others or spending time alone when you feel low?

The criteria could be used in different ways. For example, if one student responds yes, they could find somebody who has responded no to partner with. Or, they could find somebody who has responded in the same way as them and share their experiences.

The benefit of using criteria is that it can be tailored to the lesson content, pupil or task requirements, therefore giving teachers more control over pairings. This is a good technique for getting students talking with people they might not normally pair with in the class. 


In contrast to the previous suggestion, you could keep the groups or pairs consistent throughout the lesson or even throughout the whole unit of lessons. 

This technique could be particularly beneficial in helping students to open up when exploring more personal discussion points such as their experiences or strategies they wish to try. By sharing with the same partner or group throughout the lesson or even throughout the whole series of lessons, students have the opportunity to build a relationship of trust over time with their partner or group and become used to sharing with them.

Student choice

With this technique, students choose who they work with – although more often than not, this will be their friends! If you have a specific task in mind, you might specify the number of students per group or give a minimum/maximum number. Giving a little flexibility means that it is less likely for students to be left out.

If students work with their friends, they may be more likely to share experiences and participate more openly in the lesson. However, this can also potentially lead to students straying off task. Only giving a short amount of time for these discussions can help keep the students focussed. Additionally, why not read our blog on encouraging effective discussion for more tips on how to keep pupils engaged?


Effective grouping can be key to the success of a lesson and of the learning. When it is considered carefully and planned alongside the lesson itself, it can be an invaluable tool to facilitate discussion and engagement. We hope that these methods are of use to you – why not let us know if you have any more suggestions by contacting us on

About the author

Naomi French is a School Research Liaison Manager at BrainWaves, responsible for supporting schools on the BrainWaves Research Programme.  She was previously a year 6 class teacher and subject leader for PSHE.