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The secret to effective group work

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The secret to effective group work

iMaths 19/2/16


Note: iMaths is in its final year and will be discontinued at the end of 2024. If you’re looking for a primary maths resource written for the Australian Curriculum Version 9.0, explore Maths Trek.

Group work is an important strategy in classrooms - organising students into groups is something that all teachers do. It is also an important part of iMaths Investigations and while it has the potential to support amazing learning, it can also be a source of endless headaches for teachers. Here are some suggestions to help you create effective groups for Investigations (and for plenty of other classroom activities too!).

Why group?

The aim of grouping students is to improve student outcomes. Usually we think first about the improvement in learning outcomes, but we can also consider the benefits of grouping on social, behavioural and management outcomes, as well as the effective use of time, learning space and resources. Working in groups in iMaths Investigations is a platform to encourage sharing of mathematical thinking, metalanguage, mental strategies and problem solving strategies and is an integral part of the investigative approach.

Listening, questioning, disagreeing, persuading, participating, helping, sharing, and respecting the opinions and work of others are life long, real-life skills that can be taught, learnt, modeled, scaffolded and practised in group work.

How to group?

The debate over the best way to group students is as old as the hills and despite the amount of research on the most effective strategies, there is no proven way to group your class in all situations. Ability grouping can be the most effective when learning is hierarchical and linear, for example 1 to 1 correspondence > counting > adding, but not when knowledge is non-linear as in geometry and space topics. Other research advocates gender grouping in maths and English to overcome gender dominance. Mixed ability or heterogenous grouping has mentoring benefits; friendship grouping encourages participation; random grouping has social value and the list goes on.

Rather than fret, be flexible. Be inspired by classrooms where a group poster has names written in whiteboard marker, or name labels stuck on with velcro or Blu-Tac - it means those teachers are trying different ways of grouping. It shows they are happy to move students from group to group depending on the purpose and, indeed, they may even change students mid activity if they feel it will have a positive outcome.

At the end of the day, all the hard work creating what you believe to be the most effective groups will be useless unless your students know how to work in groups.

Creating effective groups

A Year 1 teacher once assumed that his Year 1 class would know how to use a paperclip, or at least be able to intuit its use. He spent the next 15 minutes replacing, showing and throwing bent metal in the bin. The same frustrations can be true with group work. Assuming that students intuitively know how to work in groups can lead to lots of greying hair. Even though some groups appear to be running smoothly without guidance, teachers must teach, model, set expectations and monitor group work. This teaching should continue throughout the school years as demands and expectations on students become more challenging.

There are many ways to do this. Try working as a group member (not as the teacher) during an Investigation – you may find it is a great way to help students. It allows you, an expert in group work, to model conversations and highlight interactions. Creating and displaying a set of rules or expectations for group work is also useful.

Here are some ways to create effective groups for Investigations:

1. Make inclusive groups

Try to create spaces that are comfortable and allow group members to actually be able to see all others in the group.

2. Give each member a valid role

Most iMaths Investigations recommend groups between 2 and 5. Use smaller groups to make it easier for everyone to have valued input without having to create specific ‘jobs’,  like recorder and presenter.

3. Ensure everyone understands the task they have to do

Using the investigation plan, provided online, allows you to make sure that students have an understanding of what the task is asking them to do. The steps given to students in their Student Book help guide the students through the steps to completion and stay on track throughout the Investigation.

4. Have everybody listen and share their ideas

Encourage discussion, persuasion and disagreement. To help spur on these group discussions use the ‘Focus questions’ and ‘Communicating and reflecting’ questions from the Investigation Teaching Plans at iMaths Online.

5. Make sure every member is accountable

Use the rubrics provided with each Investigation to give clear guidelines of what is expected from each student within the group, and individually. As your students become more familiar with Investigations, they can assess themselves on the rubrics and then you can fill in over the top.

6. Have each member invested in completing the task or learning goal

As always, students will be more invested in learning when they see it as relevant and fun. Use the iMaths Investigations to highlight why different aspects of maths are important, how they are relevant to real life problems and solutions, and how maths can be fun!

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