I got a reminder this week on the importance of cooperative learning! I’m a little embarrassed that I needed the reminder, but I think during busy times, we tend to forget about what’s important.

The students have been learning about circles. (Anticipating Pi Day!! Yahoo!) We’ve watched video tutorials on circles, done whole-class instruction, worked drills online and on paper. I wanted them to start synthesizing what they’ve learned by combining it with their problem-solving skills and their previous knowledge of area and perimeter. So, one day, instead of our usual warm-up problems, I distributed this problem set and told the kids to work them solo.

I gave the students a few minutes of struggle time and then told them to share out their answers.

The results were so disheartening! Students didn’t know whether to calculate area or circumference – or do neither. Very few students made any progress with the pizza problem. The most common mistake by far was to just divide the price by the diameter. We JUST finished studying unit prices, too! They had learned about area in the past, and about perimeter, and I could not understand why this was giving them so much trouble. The cognitive effort was low and engagement was low as well – so I could also not understand if it was a difficult task or if the problem was more one of effort and engagement. I made a note to come back to these topics.

I did not do any additional teaching between that set of problems and today. We reviewed formulas, but did not tackle the idea of problem solving in whole-class instruction. Today, I decided the kids have the skills necessary to solve the problems. They just needed to explore the ideas and discuss them with a group to sort out their misunderstandings. I created a new problem set:

I realize the picture is hard to see, but they’re basically circle problem-solving questions along the same vein as the pizza and basketball problems. I don’t tell them whether to use circumference or area or both or neither – the students need to analyze the problems and develop a strategy. Exactly the same skill set. However, I set it up differently this time. I did not give the kids a few minutes of solo work time followed by going over answers. I said:

As a group, you will need to analyze these problems and figure out how to solve them. By now, you know my expectations for group work.

– Select a leader. This person will read the questions and make sure everyone is doing the same problem together.

– Give everyone a chance to contribute, and everyone must also have a chance to listen.

– Thinking out loud while you’re working will help you solve the problems successfully.

– Stay on the same problem at the same time.

The difference was truly amazing, and it reinforced that my students DID have the necessary skills to solve these problems, and they COULD synthesize ideas – but they had to discuss their ideas and explore them together. Our group work isn’t perfect, and I know many teachers do a much nicer job at coordinating cooperative learning than I do. But I looked around my noisy, busy classroom and there was great math going on. They were engaged in the task and vigorously debating the solutions. They were excited to share their answers and give feedback to their peers.

Group work didn’t always look like this. Early in the year, the focus was much more on how to behave properly in a group setting and not as much on the math. It took lots of practice for the students to settle into it! But now, we’re a little more of a community and the kids have expectations of each other. They know what good group work looks and feels like. They have come a long way.

I needed that reminder – that even during busy times, when you don’t think you have the time or energy for the messiness of cooperative learning, it’s a key ingredient for anyone to really do any complex thinking. I feel my students gave me a great gift by reminding me of what they are capable of!

Ryan Martine

March 14, 2013 at 2:53 am

And that is another reason why you are Rotary Teacher of the Year. Nice job!

I am curious about two things: 1) is it necessarily true that students need to have the collaborative discussion to engage and make sense of problems? Why? How can we leverage the curiosity created with the collaborative process into a solo process? 2) How do we continue to deepen the level of discourse that your students have with each other? What are the next steps?

dawndup

March 14, 2013 at 3:05 am

I’ve wondered also what the next steps are. The kids had an assessment on circles today, and it was not as promising as their group work. Whatever they worked out in groups didn’t transfer 100% to solo work. We’ve worked so hard on being functioning group members that we’re neglecting the skills of solo communication… perhaps start working on having the kids do solo problems and then do peer editing / feedback on their explanations?

After break, of course. First, we have Spring Break.