Saturday, June 23, 2012

The wisdom of Year 7 : thinking about groups

It's been nearly a year now since I changed my classroom configuration from rows to groups:

Overall I'm very pleased with the results - it's working for almost every class. The one class where I have wondered if I should revert to rows have begged me not to - challenging me to think more deeply about my classroom management for this class - I'm working on it! But there is no looking back now. These insightful comments from my Year 7 students, given as anonymous student feedback, reveal the benefits and challenges of setting up group tables.

Group Table Configuration : The Good
"Helps with learning because always someone u can ask 4 help"
"You can ask for help when the teacher is busy"
The group configuration helps deal with the challenge of answering questions from thirty students at once. Sometimes the group may come up with the wrong answer - but I rarely see this happen and am much more likely to detect any misconceptions if four students share them. What I do see on many occasions is students debating the answer, and they will ask for help if they aren't sure of their answer.

"Interesting learning from different perspectives"
Students discover how their peers view and understand the content - enriching their own understanding, and providing opportunities to develop metacognition : becoming aware how knowledge is obtained and processed.

"Let's me compare my answers and help people"
A powerful gift to offer to students : creating an environment for helping each other - developing generosity. One of my four pillars from the Circle of Courage.

"It helps cos if u don't understand something and 2 shy 2 ask u can ask ur friends" 
Wow! How many students are held back because of this? A powerful insight on how a group table structure can help overcome emotional, personal and social barriers to learning.

"No need to be a loner - there are people around to help and support"
"Being alone is lonely"
How can we know the emotional needs of all students - let alone be able to help thirty students? Sitting students together, supporting them during class time to be together may just turn out be very important to some students who might be alone at other times. I was moved to read these comments.

Group Table Configuration: The Bad
"I would like to sit with different people"
I'm still uncertain if it's best to organise students or let them self-select groups. I worry about bullying and social exclusion, allowing students to set up hierarchies "you are in my group, you aren't". For now my answer is I assign the groups for Year 7 and Year 8 - and consider any problems on a case by case basis. A part of me also thinks it's important I maintain control of the seating.  Any ideas welcome!

"I can never see the board properly"
Ouch. This is the biggest issue  - and I think it's serious - especially since perhaps 30% of my lesson time is whole class instruction. Research that argues for sitting in rows claims this is the major problem with the group configuration. There are four seats in my configuration where this is a problem. I wish my classroom was wider to optimise the layout, but some tables don't get a good view of the board. I'm now going to establish it as a norm that those four students to turn their chairs to face the board during whole class instruction.

"Sometimes people just give you the answer"
An insightful comment from one student! Group configuration discourages solitary work - which is essential at times - and allows for students to just give each other answers. I often use an A/B/C/D paper approach to ensure each student at the group table has a different set of problems to work on - getting help has to be real help, not answers. But time doesn't always permit this, and if we are using the textbook, they are working on the same questions. I think I will need to be more explicit with students about ways of helping to maximise the learning.

Something not mentioned in the feedback is groups can encourage off-task behaviour and conversation. Fortunately with this class, that's not a problem - when they do go off-task (they are students!) they respond quickly  to my request to get back to mathematics. This isn't the case with all my classes - more on that in another post.

The Verdict?
Unquestionably (for me) : Yes. The learning and social benefits are so high, it's worth persisting to deal with, or minimise the down sides.  I'm looking forward to seeing how the comments next week from the class where I am having some class management issues will compare to those quoted above.

Note: My student feedback forms have an Opt-In indicator "Tick if you are OK for these comments to be shared with others". The forms themselves are completely anonymous, allowing for students to give me frank feedback without concern for any consequences.

1 comment:

  1. I think you've really hit the nail on the head here. Here's how two of those issues work out in my classroom:

    "I would like to sit with different people" I allow grade 9 students to choose their own groups, but occasionally they'll suggest mix-it-up days when they feel things are too static and they want to change seats.

    "Sometimes people just give you the answer" I do notice some students who feel like they can do a certain type of problem, but when they attempt it on their own they can't. They're too reliant on the group to help them out. For those students I suggest cooperative learning strategies like sage/scribe so they get practice, but still have the group for feedback.