Throughout the year, we have established a fairly regular rhythm in my classroom. While different content areas necessitate different approaches, there are certain key elements that show up throughout the days, the the weeks, and even the months. Today I was thinking about what I specifically do as I teach math and noticed something pretty cool in the process.
I use pre-tests to check what the students already know. Occasionally I will have a student who does very well on this early assessment and I make an effort to provide him or her with enrichment work that helps them improve their understand, increase their skills, or provide alternative approaches to solving problems. For most of the class, though, the pre-test lets me know what targeted areas need to be focused on during the unit of study.
When I teach new material, I start with guiding the class through problems and then allow them to work independently. Math homework is intended to provide additional practice that is long enough after my direct instruction that students can build their confidence in their own understanding. It also gives parents an insight into what we are working on.
As the students’ understanding and capacity improves, I provide less guided practice and more opportunities for students to work independently. A common request among students is to be allowed to work together. I know some teachers who are adamantly opposed to any kind of partner- or group-work, but I have a much different approach. I promote heartily, but only on the condition that work is happening, consistently and accurately. When a group of students get off-task, they have to return to their seats and work on their own. Knowing this serves as a strong incentive for them to make sure they are all staying on-task.
How the groups are formed vary from day to day. There are times when I let students pick their own groups, and they are fairly consistent in their selections. These become informal groupings that I can use for differentiated instruction as they often choose classmates who are performing at about the same level. There are other times that I will assign students to work in groups that I have organised. Today I did something that was a combination of the two and it worked out much better than I had even expected!
We have been working on learning all about fractions and this week has focused multiplying fractions by a whole number. Today was our second day reviewing this concept, but I noticed right away that about half the class had the basic concept down and half were still struggling with it. I wanted the students to work in groups of three, but I wanted to take advantage of the different levels of understanding. So I had the students who felt they got it to raise their hands and those who still needed more help to partner up with them. I actually ended up having the students work in groups of three to better facilitate the activity.
Each student had a 12-sided die. All three would roll their dice and use the three numbers to form a problem, such as 11 x 4/7. Then they would work together to solve the problem, first as improper fraction and then as a mixed number. They had about 20 minutes to work on this activity, with the goal of doing as many problems as they could. I had one of my America Reads/America Counts tutors with me, so I had one group of students working with him as I monitored the rest of the class. In doing so, I noticed what I had not seen before: peer teaching.
Not just one student telling another student what to do or even how to do it, but why it should be done. Step by step, students were teaching their classmates how to multiply a fraction by a whole number and their classmates were getting it! There was actual enthusiasm in the classroom as students who had been struggling finally had this concept make sense! One of my students even commented on this to me as I stopped by her group, explaining that sometimes she struggles with a concept for a while and then it is like a light turns on in her brain and it totally makes sense.
I was so thrilled by this simple success. My students were working in cooperative groups, helping each other learn, building their skills, furthering their understanding, and demonstrating mastery, all while modeling pro-social skills such as listening to others, showing empathy, working together, and asking questions when they didn’t understand. Even my students who typically shut down during math because they find it incredibly challenging were participating and engaged. It was one of those moments that I don’t see every day, but I look forward to whenever they happen. It also reminded me of one of my all-time favourite quotes about education that I share over and over again:
“The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without his teacher.” ~Elbert Hubbard
While I don’t have any students who are completely ready to set off on their own, this was a glimpse of the great potential they have. I am hoping that such cooperative learning will transfer to other aspects of our classroom environment and in my students lives. Learning to work together, and to work well together, are monumentally important skills that many adults struggle to master, but I truly believe each of my students have the capacity to acquire them!