Lately I’ve been thinking about group work.
This past spring, I reached a point in a lesson where I wanted students to work together on a few tasks. Prior knowledge was there. Things were accessible. Heterogeneous groups abound. All the standard stuff. There was no reason why the kids shouldn’t have been good to go.
What did they do? They waited for me. They couldn’t get started without me but, even worse, they couldn’t even use one another to get the ball rolling. Despite being more than capable, they wanted me to feed them…again. I say again because this was a fairly common theme all year. It just took this particular lesson for it to hit me.
Realizing this, I didn’t want to lecture them on how I knew that together they could accomplish the tasks I set forth. So I sat on a desk and stared at them. The result was a bunch of concerned faces asking me why I was so quiet. I responded with silent eye contact to each and every one of them. It took a full three minutes of awkwardness before they pieced things together. Oh, he wants us to figure this stuff out.
In the moment, I was really disappointed with them. I was borderline furious. I overplan my lessons, pour growth mindset into them all year, and live with a low floor and high ceiling. Yet why couldn’t they work together, independent of me?
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was the culprit. This situation was a direct consequence of me neglecting to develop a culture of interdependency. Now that I think about it, my classes have been like this for years.
Next year I am determined to get out of the way. For everyone’s sake, my students must need me less. I want group work to be the norm. A successful mathematics class is dependent on communication and inquiry – both of these are byproducts of collaboration.
I’m still finalizing a structure, but thanks to a workshop by Phil Dituri, I have some tentative group norms that I’ll use next year.
- If you have a question, ask your group before asking me.
- If someone asks a question, do your best to help that person.
- It is the responsibility of the group to ensure that each and every person in the group understands the task at hand.
- If you finish and check your work, you should ask others in your group if they need help.
- Discuss different answers and try to agree on one. You should be able to explain your group mates’ solutions as if they were your own.
- No talking to other groups.
It will be challenging to develop these norms with students that may not understand how to work together effectively. There are strategies that will be helpful in the process, but I still may have to start with one or two at the beginning of the year and build on those.
I want my students to value collaboration and learning from one another, but there’s another aspect to this talk of group work that’s worth noting. It’s the societal belief that collaboration is the root of all things great and that everyone must collaborate in the same way. Susan Cain argues against this mantra in her book Quiet and I agree with her. She calls this the New Groupthink because it “…elevates teamwork above all else. It insists that creativity and intellectual achievement come from a gregarious place.”
This line of thinking is a huge disservice to our introverted students. I bring this up because of my own introverted tendencies, like preferring one-on-one conversations over group discussions, enjoying listening more than speaking, and leading in non-traditional ways. The need for some students to think and work in solitude is something I get. It’s how I’m most productive. Reading the book was like uncovering so much of myself.
Studies show that one third to one half of us are introverts. The class I mentioned was full of introverts and they needed a structure to work together. I hope that my system encourages collaboration and interdependency while addressing the needs of all my students, but especially my more introverted ones. My norms won’t be a saving grace since research advocates for other strategies to support introverts – such as small groups, individual think time, and supporting individual passions, all of which I could improve upon. But hopefully my group norms help to celebrate introversion and make it easier for students to rely on one another as opposed to me.