Hello and Happy New Year! Yes, I realize we’re already into February but January flew by so fast! I’ve been doing a lot of presentations and working with different groups of teachers, which I love. I wanted to make sure you knew that we’ve added some new videos and lesson plans to the site such as:
- Subtracting Decimals Using Base 10 Blocks (two parts) (Grades 4/5)
- Subtracting Multi-Digit Numbers using Base 10 Blocks and Subtracting Multi-Digit Numbers using Invented Strategies (Grades 2-4)
- Solving One Step Addition and Subtraction Using Symbols and Unifix Cubes (Grades 3/4)
- Solving Percent Problems using Models (Grades 6-8)
- Introduction to Decimals Using Base 10 Blocks and Introduction to Decimals Using Grids and Number Lines (Grades 4/5)
- Building Place Value Understanding (Up to 4 Digits) (Grades 3-5)
- Add By Making 10 (Grades 1/2)
- Building Place Value Understanding by Making 10 (Grades K-2)
Check them out! Also, please send me requests for videos. I focus on the topics that I see as trouble areas for most students, such as subtraction. If you have a concept that you’re not sure how to teach conceptually and you don’t see it on our site already, please let me know!
Now that the housekeeping is taken care of, I wanted to write a bit about the Math Teams. Last school year the classes that I worked in all took to the team format really well but this year it’s been more of a challenge. I’ve learned a lot and wanted to share with you some of the things I’ve tried and that have worked well. For those of you that haven’t signed up for our Collaborative Math Teams Course, check it out to see if it’s something you might want to try. I find that math teams do an amazing job at engaging students in the math itself and also in developing the curricular competencies that you will see in our new curriculum. In fact, I’m convinced that using partners and/or teams are the only way to allow our students the opportunity to develop the competencies and I would argue that the competencies are just as important (if not more so) than the content. If students have strong competencies in reasoning, analyzing, understanding, solving, communicating, representing, connecting and reflecting then I believe they are well equipped to learn any new content. These competencies ensure students have conceptual understanding and so are not reliant on memorizing procedures.
"Some students just don’t get along well with others. This a crucial competency for being successful in life. Considering that the skill of being able to work collaboratively is the most important employability skill, this is a big problem."
Even though the teams work well for the most part, there have been a few groups in each class that are struggling. I’ve identified the three most common challenging behaviours I’ve experienced and then shared with you the solutions I used to resolve them.
Challenging behaviour #1: Not Doing their Role
For example, some students won’t record the groups ideas, won’t include everyone, won’t lead the group if they are the organizer etc. Also, some are just not doing the math. They are distracting, talking off topic, copying from others etc.
First, we changed the groups from four students to three students and altered the group roles a bit. The Includer role is now combined with the organizer. See here for the new roles . We also started to give an ‘independent question’ at the end of lessons where they’d already had some time (at least two lessons) to learn the concept. This helped us to see who was ‘getting it’ and who wasn’t and we were able to narrow it down to two or three groups that weren’t functioning well. We then ensured we spent the bulk of our time with those groups and coached them to work together better. This was a slow process but after a few weeks the teams are functioning way better and they know that we will be there to guide them if they cannot work well on their own. Many needed this coaching to interact in a respectful and helpful manner with their peers. We had to coach them on everything from the harmful effects of saying “I told you so!”, to wasting class time. Lastly, we gave them specific feedback on their group processes on certain days (rather than feedback on the math). We had them do group reflections and then share out and then we shared what we noticed. The focus on the importance of the group processes was helpful for shifting the unwanted behaviour.
Challenging Behaviour #2: Not getting along
Some students just don’t get along well with others. This a crucial competency for being successful in life. Considering that the skill of being able to work collaboratively is the most important employability skill, this is a big problem. It is our job to provide opportunities for students to develop this skill and the only way I can see to do this is to continue having them work in teams. I’m not going to lie to you, there times when I thought the best thing to do is to just switch them out of their teams, but then they never get the opportunity to sort out their problems with their peers. I worried that some students just wouldn’t be able to work well with anyone but many of these students have actually made huge leaps in their ability to cooperate. There are still a few students who are struggling, but I’m seeing improvement and believe that with continued support and explicit teaching and guidance, they too can learn how to work with others. I’ve realized that this is a really new skill for many students. They simply don’t know how to work with others and we need to teach it explicitly.
We started using parts of some lessons to do activities that are designed to teach some of the required skills of collaboration such as: helping others and communication (both listening actively and explaining). I’ve been using activities such as ‘The Broken Circle’ activity in which students are only successful when they help others first and realize that they can only be successful as a team (working as an individual will result in failure). We also did the ‘Master Designer’ activity in which students had to explain their design in a way that others could recreate it without seeing it, just using by verbal instructions and hand gestures. This one was amazing; students realized how difficult it was to not only communicate their own ideas but also interpret others’ instructions. They realized that we all have totally different interpretations of things and that they need to ask good questions, be curious and open minded in order to communicate well with each other. Lastly, those that struggle to get along in general, we have identified and are providing coaching for them. We work more often with their group and help them to rephrase their words into more kind, inclusive words and if needed help them to identify what else they struggle with (if they don’t like moving at the pace of group we help them to see the benefits of thinking more deeply and differently about the concept).
Challenging Behaviour #3: They just tell the others the answers instead of guiding or coaching them
Solution: I included more general coaching questions on the new roles sheet (see above link). We also gave them coaching cards that were designed for the specific topic they were working on. This is an example we used for multiplying two-digit numbers. We also had students reflect on what they could do on their own that would help their group members understand the math rather than just telling them procedures. It was fascinating for me to watch how ingrained procedural knowledge is in these students and how unfamiliar conceptual understanding is for them. Incidentally, most of these students (who are very procedural) have very little retention of what they have ‘learned’ in previous grades. They could not multiply larger numbers, nor estimate and those that had remembered the algorithm couldn’t explain why it worked and could not estimate at all (they calculated and then wrote an estimate by rounding their answer). We set goals around this and we were more clear about the difference between knowing HOW to do a calculation and understanding WHY that process works.
"I sometimes wonder if this is the best way as it seems so difficult at times but then I think about how much more these students are learning, not just math but really important life skills (like working together and communicating well) and I am reassured that this is the best way I can help my students."
I’ve seen some amazing improvements since doing this work (and it’s really hard work). I, like many of you I’m sure, sometimes wonder if this is the best way as it seems so difficult at times but then I think about how much more these students are learning, not just math but really important life skills (like working together and communicating well) and I am reassured that this is the best way I can help my students. Also, thankfully, I see improvements all the time. There are students who all of a sudden just start to ‘get it’ and become leaders in their groups in either their ability to collaborate or the math or both. Those moments always fuel me and keep me staying the course. I know this works because I see it and the students articulate that they see it and feel it working too. Good luck with your own teams – please comment or email to share your own experiences.