I've written before about my use of group work in my high school math classroom, and while I feel like I've been getting better at coordinating it, I still wasn't completely satisfied. This year I made some changes in how I implement group work and I'm now much happier with my results. I'm now convinced that there are two things in particular that are essential for successful group work.
1. Rich Mathematical Tasks
If you're going to have your students work in groups, they need to have a task that lends itself to group work. In my classes a group is four students, and if the "task" they're working on is merely working through some straightforward practice problems, then having them work in pairs works much better. In pairs, students have a partner they can turn to for help or to compare answers, but they're not as likely to be distracted by the extra people. If the students don't have a rich task to work on, four people is too much like a party.
So what exactly do I mean by a rich task? This doc has a good detailed description (check out the "Doing Mathematics" task description), but in general it's any task that is designed to need, or is at least enhanced by, four people working together to complete it. I'm teaching a new course this year (Common Core Math, Year 2) and our district provided us with a lot of good activities and lessons, many of which are rich tasks that lend themselves to group work. (Here's one that uses zombies to explore exponential growth.)
2. Group Roles
I've actually heard or read a number of times that establishing and enforcing group roles is essential for effective group work, but I never got around to trying it. Finally, this past summer, I attended a workshop in which one of the presenters talked about the group roles she used in her classes. I modified them a little and was very impressed when I tried them out. My four group roles are:
- Reads all parts of the assignment aloud to the group.
- Confirms that all group members understand each question/part of the assignment.
- Keeps group members focused on the task(s).
- Confirms that all group members get same answers for each part of the assignment.
- Confirms that all group members have the problem worked out on their own paper.
- Paper must show all work; no “answer only” responses.
- Keeps track of time.
- Ensures group is making progress toward completion of assignment.
- Monitors group progress relative to other groups.
- Checks in with other groups for comparison.
- Only member of group that can talk/ask questions outside of group.
You have to train the students on how to implement the roles, and you also have to enforce the roles, especially the first few times, but they pick them up pretty quickly.
The roles also help to reinforce the idea that this is not a party. The group has a specific task to accomplish, and each member of the group has a specific role which will help with accomplishing the task.
While my groups are now working better than they have in the past, I find that I'm also using group work less than I have in the past. That's mostly because now that I understand better what makes a good rich task, I also understand that you're not necessarily going to be doing those kinds of tasks on a daily (or even weekly) basis. So now I'm looking forward to getting an appropriate mix of group work and other kinds of work in my classes.