As educators and trainers, we often find ourselves needing to sort class members into small groups for an activity. Tried-and-true ways include having participants “number off” or color-coding their name tags. But even the ways in which we divide our students or trainees into small groups can contribute to learning and enjoyment: it can ground learners in the topic at hand, reinforce key points, provide insight into ourselves and others, and help develop teamwork.
In short, the way we divide into groups can become a subtle yet powerful element of spiral learning. For those of us who teach intercultural communication or diversity and inclusion, it can be helpful to divide into groups in ways that encourage learning about similarities and differences.
In that spirit, here are ten of my favorite “Quick Tips” for dividing a large group into small groups. Whether you want to explicitly debrief the learning or leave it as-is depends on your purposes. As with any activity, it needs to suit your style and that of your students, and be appropriate for the environment.
Using food is always fun and low stress for the participants. As individuals we like different tastes, and there are cultural tendencies as well. For me, the “sour” tastes of pickled food unite my German blood and my life experience in Japan, for example.
- Instructions: Make a small sign with a flavor or taste, using as many flavors as you need groups. Then, ask class members to go to their favorite flavor.
- Variations: Alternatively you could divide the group by having participants choose their favorite fruit or choose their favorite dish from among several common dishes. Or, try having a real snack at each location, and just see where people gravitate. Depending on the context, this could be a good time to use international and ethnic snack foods.
- If you want to Debrief: Once you have the small groups, you can ask people to take a look around. Do they see themes in the groupings? Any cultural tendencies? Or, do they see reinforcement that we all have our individual taste preferences? Each time will be different. Ask people to reflect on why they like the taste they chose. What life experiences taught them to value that taste? Might this enhance their cultural self-awareness?
Again using food, this is one of my favorite methods, and one very popular with students or trainees! In the context of teaching or training, a treat is a good pick-me-up, and it’s easy to “internationalize” or add something new and different given the variety of food.
- Instructions: Prepare “goodies” (chocolates, candies, pretzels, cheese sticks; I’ve even used dried squid and roasted grasshoppers) in as many varieties as you want groups. Put one item for each of your class members in a basket, and pass the basket. Then ask “pretzel people” to meet over here, “cheese people” over there, etc.
- Variations: You can also use multicultural snacks! Another simple variation is to use the same kind of candy but in different colors: all the reds meet over here, the blues over there, etc. If you have a group that genuinely embraces informality, have them suck their candy, then stick out their tongues to find their fellow group members.
- If you want to Debrief: Which snacks attracted you and why? Are your food preferences influenced by your ethnic and cultural heritage? Which rules your snack preference: personality or culture? Did any of the snacks look very unappetizing? If so, why? Perhaps make the point that just as our snack preferences vary according to whom we’re with and how we’re feeling (whether we’re tired, excited), our behavior in multicultural teams depends on the context, too.
Quotations have become quite popular on social media sites, and they are a powerful way to introduce a new topic or to summarize learning. Since this activity involves a bit of walking around, it gets people up and moving as well. It’s one of my favorite ways to get people into pairs.
- Instructions: Assemble a set of quotations on the topic you are teaching. Choose half as many quotes as you have participants. Type up the quotes, dividing them in the middle: choose a fairly obvious place for breaking the quotation in half. Print them, cut them apart, fold them up, and have participants each choose one out of a basket. Then, ask them to find the person with the other half of their quote.
- Variations: You can combine this method with the “Goodie Share” by taping the half-quote onto the bottom of a candy or snack, then asking participants to find their partners.
- If you want to Debrief: To aid in this process, you could post a list of complete quotes on a flip chart. You can have some/each of the couples read their quotes aloud to the class. You might ask participants to speak to how “their” quotes relate to what they want to get out of your class today.
This one’s a simple, quick, and easy way to divide participants into groups using a word that reinforces the theme, topic or key skill of the day’s learning session.
- Instructions: Choose a word that represents an aspect of the theme you are teaching. That word should have the same number of syllables as the number of small groups you want. Instead of numbering off, have class members recite the word’s syllables. It’s a good way to reinforce key concepts.
- Variations: You could say the word in another language, thus teaching a bit of a destination language, for example.
- If you want to Debrief: Really not necessary, but… You could ask participants about different ways of hyphenating words, dividing syllables, in the languages they speak.
This is another very quick way to divide participants into small groups: it can have a cultural component, yet it doesn’t necessarily need to be debriefed. With a unique deck of cards, it can be even more interesting.
- Instructions: From a deck of playing cards, choose one card for each person in your class. Make sure you have “sets” of cards, one set for each group you want. Put all the cards from the abridged deck facedown on a table, and have participants each choose a card. Then group people as you’ve planned, by number (all 2s, 3s, etc.), or by suit, color, odds/evens, higher/lower than 8, etc.
- Variations: Use Mexican Lotería cards, Japanese Hanafuda cards, mahjong playing cards, or another culturally appropriate (or new-to-your-participants) card deck to divide your class.
- If you want to Debrief: Ask if everyone felt comfortable with your instructions. Were they familiar with the words you used (suit, Ace, etc.)? People who play cards have a culture unfamiliar to non-card players: shared “common sense,” vocabulary, customs. Some people associate card playing with gambling, and thus don’t like, or feel religiously forbidden from, playing. As with any educational activity, make sure this one will be comfortable for your learners.
I have learned so much from this simple activity over the years because participants always see something I hadn’t noticed. It can also serve as a wonderful impetus for reflecting on value differences.
- Instructions: Have class members get into groups of 3 or 4, whatever you choose, based on similarities in what they are wearing. They decide what they have in common.
- Variations: An alternative is to have learners group according to shoe type. This can be very fun, too, and it’s sometimes surprising the categories people come up with.
- If you want to Debrief: If you choose to debrief this group-sorting activity, you may find a myriad of perceptions about clothing and shoe styles. Often people group into categories that they themselves might not have thought of on their own. Ask participants to discuss in their small groups how they decided to group themselves. Were they all focused on the same thing, or did they have different understandings of their clothing commonality? Groups can share with one another how they grouped, and compare similarities and differences. Did anyone share a perception of someone else’s clothing that surprised you? That echoed or differed from your own perception? What can this tell us about values and perceptions?
This method also helps everyone learn a bit about each other quickly, that they might not have otherwise known.
- Instructions: Have people line up according to the number of languages they speak, or the number of countries in which they’ve lived, and then divide them into groups.
- Variations: Tell participants to assemble in groups of people who speak 1, 2, and someone who speaks 3 (or more) languages. This gives a bit more diversity in each small group. You can do the same thing with the number of countries in which participants have lived.
- If you want to Debrief: Ask participants if they are surprised at who is in their group—have they learned something new about one or more of their colleagues? Does this change their perception of the other person? How and why? Does this change their perception of themselves? How and why?
I have always been fascinated by the different sounds that animals make as represented in different languages. Really, in Japanese, mice say “chu”?! Use this interesting trivia to your advantage, and insert a bit of lightheartedness to your session.
- Instructions: Print cards with an image of an animal and the sound that animal makes in a different language. Then ask people to make the sound on their card in order to find each other. You will need one card for each participant, and the number of animals you use should correspond to the number of groups you want to form.
- If you want to Debrief: Explain that animal sounds are lighthearted, then shift to the inextricable connection between linguistic and cultural fluency. Ask participants to share with you differences they’ve noticed across languages, words that sound similar but mean different things in different places, or how much vocabulary, even in the same language, varies place-to-place. You could ask participants share other interesting sounds animals make in languages they speak.
- Variations: You can use the same animal and have participants divide into groups according to the sound it makes in Spanish vs. German vs. Chinese, etc. You could use different animals and the sound they make in a destination language. Alternatively, you could use industry-specific vocabulary in different languages, or words having to do with the subject of your workshop in various languages.
This is a very easy way to divide the room into two groups, and to illustrate how something that looks similar can really be quite different once you analyze it a bit more.
- Instructions: Ask your students to cross their arms over their chests. Those people with their left arms on top form one group, and those with their right arms on top form the other.
- Variations: Asking participants to clasp their hands or cross their legs works just as well.
- If you want to Debrief: We all have automatic habits that we don’t pay much attention to, things we do without making a conscious choice—like the way we cross our arms, or how we attempt to persuade someone, or apologize or disagree. Another point you might debrief: ask whether, at first glance, with arms crossed, they all seemed to be doing the same thing? It wasn’t until you called attention to the subtle differences in how people were crossing their arms that they noticed. And so it can be with culture.
Many cultures around the world have a variety of traditions around naming their children: a girl may be called “daughter of __,” sons may be named according to birth order, a child may be named after an ancestor, or given a name that indicates a hope the parents have for the child (beauty, peace, etc.). Many people are very, very proud of their names, and others may have no idea how they were named or why. Some may have changed their name or had their names changed for them.
- Instructions: Ask your students to think about their name, and a short (30 second) story about how they got the name, what their name means, how their name or nickname has varied over the years. Then tell students to walk around sharing their “name stories” with one another, until they find someone with a name story similar to theirs in some way. Participants can form pairs, groups of 3, 4, or 5—whatever is helpful.
- Variations: An alternative of course is to find partners with very different name stories.
- If you want to Debrief: This is a wonderful activity through which you can talk about value differences, or strategies for adapting to a new culture (do you change your name, adapt its pronunciation…).
Hey, all you trainers and teachers out there: What’s your favorite way to divide a large group into small groups for activities? Please share your creative approaches and recommendations!