As a math teacher I am constantly reevaluating my program because even if we think everything is perfect our group of kids change every year and what might have been great for last year’s group might not be so for this one. One of the parts of my program that I thought I’d revisit this year is how I make up the student math teams. When I first reentered the math classroom I knew that I had to figure out how to help students learn math in teams for multiple reasons. The first of which is that my Mom, a retired Math teacher, kept telling me stories of her awesome math classes working in teams. At first I thought, “This will be easy! Just put kids together, tell them it’s ok to talk and it will all take care of itself, right?” FAIL!!! Not being one to accept failure I started doing my homework, got training from multiple sources and read copious books and studies. Slowly but surely I started building a program that helped my students learn to work effectively in a team but it wasn’t without a lot of trial and error.
The good news is that there was a lot of info about how to effectively get kids to work in Math teams and after a few years our district adopted CPM which has a fantastic professional development program. When going to their training they always have all of these cool ways of creating teams. Random selection programs, puzzle pieces, cards etc. I tried them all. I tried homogeneous grouping by level, heterogeneous grouping, all girls, all boys, same culture, different cultures, same home language, different home languages etc etc etc. The one thing that I found was universally true was that nothing was universally true. Sorry, I know everyone wants that magic bullet that works 100% of the time with 100% of students but there is no such thing, no matter what sales people or tick tock videos say. That being said I have settled into some patterns that I came to believe were best practices.
- Be Intentional
At the beginning of every year we don’t know our students yet but I still used as much of these practices as possible. As the year progresses and I get to know my students better I can build better teams every couple of weeks. They may not always work out the way I wish but that’s on me and hopefully I won’t make the same mistake twice. As professional educators we know what students should or should not be put together and even after a couple of months of conditioning it’s just more effective on multiple levels to be intentional.
- Heterogeneous Brouping (mostly)
Students that are friends or play the same sport, gamers, Goths, Make up artists, skaters etc etc tend to want to talk to their friends about their common interests more than they want to talk about math. Surprise surprise. By breaking these clicks up it just saves a lot of pain and anguish for everyone.
We have extremely high absentee and tardy rates at our school. When grouping randomly it is quite easy for a student to be stuck on a team with no one on it or just one other student that might not be the most effective teammate for them. Hence I tend to build teams that have the students with serial attendance issues dispersed throughout the class so that there is no more than one per team. Sometimes I’ll even create a team of “ghosts” (students that are on the roster but never show up).
You know those kids that actually care about their GPA’s and work hard to be their best everyday. Yep I’ve tried to put them together in the same groups and depending on the students that might be the best practice but in general my experience matches the research that when a student explains their mathematical reasoning to another student they gain a deeper understanding of the math themselves.
- Invest the Time in Team Building
While building the “perfect team” is important for my students, it is not a guarantee that they will all work together effectively. This is why I have multiple team building activities embedded into my program and history (and research) tells me they work. I see a lot of teachers spending the first 5 – 15 minutes of class with “Bell Work” which generally consists of just having kids do more math problems. I have found that to have a negative effect on multiple fronts. I invest that time helping students learn to be good teammates and start the class having a little fun and being successful.
Building Thinking Classrooms and the Everyday Random Grouping
When the book came out I was super excited that it got so much attention from so many teachers, administrators and policy makers, if for no other reason than it would help them understand what and why my program works. The one issue I had with it was the dailey random grouping. I had read the research he based his recommendation on well before the book came out but I had already “been there done that” so I wrote it off as being effective in a more homogenous learning environment. That being said, as this year reached the halfway point and I had my students progressing nicely on their mathematical journeys I felt I needed to shake things up so I thought I’d give it a try (again). First, I just used playing cards. Very shortly the cards started to wear and some students started gaming the system. Next I put team numbers on plastic tiles which helped with the wear issue but not the gaming. Finally, I created a random group generator and had it up on a screen at the beginning of class. Gaming and wear issues solved. I’ve run all of my classes like this for two months and here is what I found.
- The only problem it solved was breaking up the routine.
I have been told of research (but haven’t been able to verify) that shows that just the simple act of making a visible change in the working environment has a short term effect of increasing worker productivity. I believe I saw this effect as well but as time passed the newness and efficacy wore off.
- All of the Old issues remained
As discussed above the problems of placement and absenteeism came back.
- Return on Investment
Whenever I try something new I eventually do a cost benefit analysis. Is the time investment worth the learning return? There are only so many hours in the day and I always want to use mine as effectively as possible to help more students learn more math. At this point in my career I can make just about anything work in the classroom. The question is always about the ROI. In this case, random selection takes more time and doesn’t help move learning forward for my students. In fact it did the opposite.
Will it work for you?
Maybe. I teach the most disenfranchised students in the American educational system. 100% come from economically challenged households. ⅔ of them are English learners. Over 90% come from historically marginalized and frankly oppressed ethnic groups. My IM3 students come to me with a huge spread in their mathematical education ranging from a 5th grade level to a very few that are operating at standard. I know different districts, states and schools operate differently and thus you must build your program accordingly. I am glad I work somewhere that I don’t have to be in lockstep with some artificial, one size fits all program and am able to help all of my students move forward.