Working in groups is an integral part of elementary school, so it's best to have a good sense of how our gifted kids fit into that.
The bottom line is that I recommend against regularly grouping your gifted kids together.
Granted, there may be some situations where it makes sense. These situations are generally ones involving narrow topics where ability levels really define the work that the group is doing. A novel group is one example.
But grouping by ability can diminish the opportunity for social learning. Groups are where students cement relationships and – most importantly – figure out that there are things to be learned from all kids, not just other gifted kids.
So we mix ability levels whenever we can. Then we guard against our most-capable students doing the bulk of the work by setting appropriate expectations.
Group work expectations
In the case of groups, we don’t just set an expectation for our gifted students – we establish one for all kids regarding their level of participation in group projects. You can already guess what this expectation is:
Everyone participates equally!
Expectations are the foundation, but a wise teacher will also put into place methods by which she can assess the individual contribution toward group projects. Aside from simply listening in to see who's putting in the most effort, you can also use the technique of assigning different colors to different kids if they're making something such as a chart or poster.
I've also given kids in my classroom permission to report to me when somebody is not fully participating. It is a structured form of tattling, but it doesn't sound like it to them if you give them the actual words to say:
“Mrs. Weigle, Ben needs a little help focusing on our project.”
Of course, since teachers have 360° vision and hearing, you’ll already know that Ben is not putting out his best effort. It doesn't hurt, however, to have the entire group focused on everybody contributing even when you are not keeping a close eye on them.
This is much more preferable than allowing some kids (often your gifted ones) to do the majority of the work while others get a free ride to a good grade.
A small opportunity for “playing teacher”
Another great reason for mixing your gifted kids into your groups is that this gives them an automatic extension activity; teaching on a very small scale.
A gifted student who is really engaged can help raise the bar on the quality of the work product of a group. In turn, they will learn the subject to an even greater depth by offering explanations and peer-to-peer guidance to the other group members.
If you see that one of your high-performing students is really grasping a concept, then give them the words to say so that they can politely make their points without throwing off the social balance of the entire group:
“What do you think of this idea?”
“I wonder what would happen if we did it this way?”
“That’s a great idea, Ellen! We could even add to that by…”
However, be careful not to overburden a gifted student who is not really up for the role of teacher. Encourage peer-to-peer teaching, but never assume that a group with a gifted kid will be just fine without adult supervision.
It's much better to keep your eyes peeled for a situation where a gifted child is bursting with pride at figuring something out and then enabling their ability to bring the rest of their group along with their thought process.
One advantage of groups
Group work does not usually present the same “early finisher” problem as other situations because the kids are not working independently and the entire group finishes their work at the same time (usually when the instructional period is over).
This is largely true for subjects such as social studies and science where the kids are almost always involved in group activities or experiments.