Tuesday, July 8, 2014

One Resource a (Week)Day #7: Tips for Meaningful Group Work

In case you have missed @cheesemonkeysf's recent blogpost linking to various great resources on group work, I wanted to particularly highlight the link to Malcolm Swan's summarized recommendations for designing instruction strategically. It is fabulous! I think that most of the time, we are doing some vague form of group work, as in kids randomly sit in groups (maybe they sit with the same friends they always work with), and we may feel inspired occasionally to make some sorting/activity cards or maybe we just give out worksheets. The collaboration is pretty adhoc, and students are unclear about when to ask for help from their group and when to ask the teacher. Some always prefer to ask the group, while others more eagerly turn to the teacher. I'll confess that this is typically how it looks in my class, even though students are generally pretty good about collaborating with each other. The issue with this (and why I am so invested in fixing this for next year) is that when kids work with the same kids all the time, it is almost always the same one or two kids per group who explain the concept to the rest of the group. In order to break through that, you need structured discussions. I've noticed that some students, when placed into groups with students that they don't know well, automatically facilitate a democratic sharing of ideas that includes everyone, and afterwards I always hear really positive feedback from those particular groups. But it's not just enough for that to occur as a fluke; it should be occurring in all groups all the time, thereby empowering every student to have a voice.

Malcolm Swan's recommendations are clear and easy to read, because they are bulleted lists with clear language connecting all the sections. Although most, if not all, of the activities suggested are actually ones that I've already done, he goes quite a bit further to talk about the teacher's role in making these activities more meaningful, which is the piece that I know I am lacking. For example, recently at a presentation about Complex Instruction, we (participants) were asked in groups of 3 to sort numbers on a number line. That activity, I myself have used in a Grade 7 class. But the way that it was structured under Complex Instruction guidelines ensured equal participation: Each person can only touch / place the numbers that they are individually assigned to sort. After all the numbers have been sorted, as a group we needed to try to generate 4 different ways of comparing numbers along the number line. That last bit completely elevated the level of complexity of this task and brought our discussions to a deeper level, drawing out connections that were previously rushed through or overlooked. Malcolm Swan recommend similar tactics (he would categorize this as a multiple representation task, I think, since the sorting involved fractions, decimals, and well-known irrational numbers):

The teacher’s role is to ensure that learners:
* take their time and do not rush through the task;
* take turns at matching cards, so that everyone participates;
* explain their reasoning and write reasons down;
* challenge each other when they disagree;
* find alternative ways to check answers (e.g. using calculators, finding areas in different ways, manipulating the functions);
* create further cards to show what they have learned. (Pg. 21 of the summary)

He goes on and provides similar analysis of roles for a variety of learning tasks, which makes this a nice "cheat sheet" to have right before running a particular activity, in order to get the most bang for your buck.

In fact, this summary document is fabulous as a resource, because it also gives group work guidelines that you can hand out to students to help them understand what positive group work looks like. (See Pg. 31 of the summary.) I won't be able to make it to the Twitter Math Camp this year, but what a fabulous set of resources @cheesemonkeysf has already laid out! Thanks again, MathTwitterBlogosphere! I can't wait to dig into the rest of what you guys come up with!

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