The deliberate use of smaller groups when working with larger groups is an important option for facilitators. Working in small groups permits more engagement by participants in the process and may encourage those who are more reticent to contribute further as a consequence of the perceived safety and confidentiality of the smaller group.
There is no established size for a small group. Whatever size of group you are working with, it is always possible to break up into smaller units for specific tasks. Working in pairs or triads are specific forms of small groups, but small groups are assumed to be between four and perhaps eight participants in size.
Breaking into smaller groups serves two main purposes.
1. It allows a greater range of tasks to be accomplished if each small group is given a different task.
2. It enables more participants to contribute to the discussion if each group is engaged in the same task.
Thus, working in small groups is a method for encouraging participation and for achieving a higher output. This is achieved at the expense of some control over the whole group by the facilitator.
Groups can be divided into smaller groups on a self-selecting basis or more deliberately by the facilitator. The latter selection may be preferred if you wish to ensure a particular mix of participants (or to engineer group membership in some way). Self- selection by participants may be more comfortable for the participants since they will tend to gravitate towards people they already know or towards whom they have some affinity. Simple methods for creating arbitrary mixes in small groups include numbering participants off (for example, people are numbered 1-2-3-4-1 -2-3-4-1 and so on, around the large group and all the 1s get together, all the 2s form a small group, and so on), or imposing a condition on small-group membership (such as, no two people from the same work setting in any group).
Facilitators should avoid situations in which lots of small groups are formed, each doing the same task. This can become boring and repetitive, particularly if each group is expected to offer feedback in a subsequent plenary session. Instead, the facilitator can give small groups different topics and tasks to work on that are themselves all aspects of the main issue.
Examples of where small groups might be used effectively
• When participants are uncomfortable about speaking in a large group and need encouragement to make their views known to others.
• To generate a variety of views in a relatively limited period of time.
• To examine alternatives.
• To gather together particular groups of participants in order to explore issues from their perspective.