Group work is on my mind often lately. It is generally the center of my teaching practice and the classroom structure I enjoy the most. My use of group work varies throughout the year but I believe that it is essential to good mathematics and to good learning. But I know groups of kids huddled around a single table-size whiteboard can’t happen once we return to school (whenever that might be.)
Governors and superintendents across the country have dropped hints at what they think next school year might look like. A common idea permeating the conversation is that there will be a mix of in person and distance/virtual learning. If this is going to be the new norm, we all have to adapt our teaching practices. Right now we are in survival mode. That is not sustainable. We have to pivot to optimize learning while emphasizing safety.
While my district hasn’t offered much guidance yet, I am thinking ahead to how to set my students up for success. Collaboration is an essential 21st century skill. Even with lockdowns, teams all across the world have had to find ways to collaborate with one another. Zoom and other video technology allow this to happen with ease, but the actual skills to execute a team effort are still needed by the individuals on the team. So I need to plan out how I can support students collaborating in this new era of physical distance and digital necessity.
With group work, one of the rocks I stand on comes from Jo Boaler. In her amazing book, Mathematical Mindsets, she outlines group roles. These roles are the most robust set of guidance I have seen, at least for a math classroom. They emphasize equal contribution and differentiate for personality types. A few years ago, I made small cards with each of the group roles on them and laminated them. I use the cards to give instruction specifically about how to work in groups and students have the cards as a reference throughout group work activities.
Can I make this work in a digital age or in an age where students can’t actually sit next to each other? Students may not be able to share supplies. Many of these tasks are not applicable to distance collaboration or could not happen in a socially distant classroom.
One thing I know that our school has to do is teach students more intentionally how to use computers for learning. We are moving to be a one-to-one laptop school since we have already distributed laptops to more than half of our student body already. We will purchase more next year to ensure new students also have one. Since students will have their own device, it will be simpler to teach certain skills. In order to teach how to digitally collaborate we will need to practice in the classroom regularly. Since students won’t be able to sit next to each other, can we will have to use digital tools to share ideas. Students can share pictures of their notebook with each other, they can use Padlet to brainstorm ideas, they can type on the same Google Doc, and much more.
The reporter, instead of joining the teacher in a huddle, perhaps joins the teacher in a group Zoom or Google Meet to discuss group progress. We would practice this in the classroom with students still seated so that when they go home to the truly virtual setting, they have practiced the skill already. The resource manager, instead of physically calling over the teacher, instead emails the teacher to set up an appointment to debrief their work, just like an adult worker would do with their supervisor. As a teacher, I could support this by creating a digital sign up sheet with available appointment times and sharing it only with resource managers and asking them to sign up for appointment times for their group the following day. My students are so visual that I know I’d kick this off by always displaying it on the projector so they know which document I am referencing and I can talk through what I expect.
Teach Collaboration Intentionally
Using reflection opportunities about these group roles is critical if you decide to use them in your own classroom. I normally would have students write a journal entry (which can now be digitally done) about which group role they have chosen and what that means they are going to do in the coming class period. A post reflection, for my kids, would happen the next day because our class periods aren’t usually long enough to do both and have a meaningful mathematical experience. Doing reflections more often about group work, to me, seems more necessary in this new learning environment we will build together.
It’s also going to be essential to give students feedback directly on their digital collaboration in class so that they know they are developing the skill that is now so essential when they go home to do their virtual learning. I want students to rely on and help each other. I don’t want them to feel alone, as so many of them do right now.