Elbert Chu of the New York Times published the article At Baruch High School, “Math Takes the Prize”. In this article, Elbert Chu describes an ideal math environment where students are engaged in meaningful, cooperative learning in mathematics that includes math projects and workshops. From examining which equations underlie the popular game Angry Birds to analyzing sports statistics, students choose projects to work on in small groups that challenge their understanding and application of math.
As we read this article, we thought about our own teaching and classroom experiences we’ve created to engage our math students in group work. While this article focuses on high achieving math students, we have to imagine that each group is still comprised of students with a range of ability levels. This heterogeneous grouping is good for everyone. Students who have a stronger understanding of the material benefit from explaining it to others, and students who are more challenged expand their understanding by learning from peers. The teacher’s role becomes more of a facilitator, and using cooperative learning in mathematics effectively requires skill, patience, and flexibility.
What is cooperative learning in mathematics?
It is characterized by small groups of learners working together as a team to solve a problem, complete a task, or accomplish a common goal.
Why does it work?
- Students are more willing to solve challenging problems as a group.
- Students are often able to explain things to each other in ways that make more sense than the teacher’s original explanation.
- Students are more willing to ask questions and take risks in small groups.
- Students learn more when they invest in math discourse.
Does it always work?
From our teaching experiences, cooperative learning often works best if the team members are not of the same level in mathematics. One or two members of the group should be more knowledgeable than the others. That way, the more capable student is advancing by teaching the concept while others are advancing by engaging with the problem and wrestling with the solution. It’s also important that the teacher use flexible grouping throughout the school year so that each student is challenged appropriately and rotates the role of being the expert. When classrooms achieve this balance, all students have the opportunity to learn within their zone of proximal development (L. Vygotsky).Written by: Editorial Team, My Learning Springboard, Inc.