Group project. Words that would make my sixteen year old self silently scream. Yet again, I was going to have to do 95% of the work and three other people were going to just go along for the ride. That was my best case scenario. Worst case scenario, I was going to have to undo/redo their work so that I would get the A I wanted. I was definitely not a fan.
Fast forward past college, graduate school, and years of working as an engineer (sometimes still not a fan of the whole group work thing but recognizing it was a reality with which I had to live) to my graduate licensure classes. Naturally, the topic of cooperative learning was addressed. The voice in my head was grumbling “Great. New name, same old story. No way am I doing this to my students.” I firmly pushed the whole idea aside and focused on the important thing: math.
A funny thing happened, though.
As I focused on math, I discovered the importance of mathematical discourse. If students were going to have discourse, they had to sit in groups, so I arranged my room accordingly. It kind of worked, but it still seemed like the higher functioning students were doing a disproportionate amount of the thinking and talking and the lower functioning students were sort of “along for the ride.” Not fair. Not equal. Not good. I stuck with it, but was not completely happy.
About that time, a friend introduced me to Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures. She had PD on them in another state and shared some of the structures. I decided to try a couple of them out. I started with Numbered Heads Together. In it, each student works independently on a problem. When he or she has solved it, he or she stands up. When the whole group is standing, they discuss their thinking. When everyone is in agreement, they sit down. A student is called upon at random to speak for the group. This resonated with me on a lot of levels. Each student had to work through the problem. The structure provided think time, no one rushing any one. Discourse was embedded in the structure. There was mutual accountability, no one knew who would speak for the group so everyone made sure everyone understood the problem. This could work.
I am still not a fan of group work, but I use Cooperative Learning all the time. It has been great.
These days, I still have the desks arranged in groups of four.
I use colored index cards to put labels on each desk in the group. Since I teach math, I use Greek letters that students see in mathematics (Delta, Sigma, Epsilon, and Pi) for the different tags. (I make all of the Deltas one color, all of the Sigmas another color and so on). When I call upon someone to speak for the group, I randomly select a seat position to speak (think pulling a stick with Delta, Sigma, Epsilon, or Pi).
When I arrange the desks, I put all of the Deltas in the same seat position within each group, all the Sigmas in the same seat position, and so on. When I make my seating chart, I am intentional. I place stronger students in the diagonals at the table group. Then, I fill in the students who need more support between them. That way, they have a strong partner to scaffold the discussion if needed.
I also use a task chart to assign responsibilities to each member of the group.