A Reflection: Roles and Complex Instruction

Think First. Photo by Jason Devaun

Think First. Photo by Jason Devaun

A few months ago, I wrote a post entitled Roles and Complex Instruction: Getting the School Year Started. It was written during a period of particular optimism and excitement as all we teachers feel at the start of a new school year. After returning to this post and having a re-read, I had some thoughts that I wanted to get down about how it has all turned out so far. As always, I am very much open to comments from anyone who might have some suggestions for how I might improve learning experiences for my students!

I came into the year with a goal to start my grade 9 students off with the language of functions that they would need to be successful during the school year. Our school offers all three IB programs and so their MYP program requires them to investigate patterns, apply mathematics to real world situations, and communicate themselves effectively. It seemed logical to apply complex instruction in this case to get them verbalizing their thought process while gathered in dialogue around mathematical concepts.

Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten roles to work as well as I’ve wanted as students tackle a task together in groups. It often seems that students have so much language to deal with as English Language Learners (ELLs) that focusing on the roles has gotten in their way of getting the task done. The purpose of the roles is to help them work better together on a task as the roles themselves are interdependent rather than acting as a division of labour. Getting them to follow the roles has been more challenging than I expected, and it has a lot to do with how much attention I give this during a lesson. In the end, I just want them to gain understanding and whether they follow the roles or not becomes secondary as valuable seconds of a lesson tick away. Naturally, they have been very quick to figure this out!

Another challenge I face is that a lot of my students’ conceptual work together takes place in their Mother Tongue (often Korean, though some Chinese students attend our school) as it needs to for maximum learning gains (much research has shown this, but here is one example). So the bigger challenge that I face is how to get the students speaking in English and learning academic language that I require of them in English. And when in their conceptual process do I do this?

Looking back, I should have had students learning math language and group work language in smaller chunks. I wonder if I introduced the roles too soon as well. Having a unit where I simply focused on the mathematical language was a good idea, but it also came at a time when a whole host of other words needed to be in their vocabulary too. That was just too much.

My plan now is to take a step back and deal with math language. I will not disregard the roles, and when a task really calls for them, I will use them. So far, however, a strength in my classroom is that the tasks I have been able to present are group-worthy, and so I am getting the students together in productive discussion about mathematics, which is an achievement. I will continue to work to make tasks that are group-worthy, and I will use more visible thinking routines to make the key concepts from lessons more explicit. I have provided sentence frames for students at their tables, but these need to be a more central part of each lesson as they have been often overlooked. I think these things and my expectation that they speak in English at appropriate times in the lesson will go a long way to bringing up their use of academic mathematical language.

By the way, if you’re looking for some examples of math group-worthy tasks, check out NRICH.org. They have a great selection of resources for mathematics teachers, making learning tangible and encouraging students to gather together around a great problem.

I want my classroom to be a place where students are building confidence in their problem solving skills and their intuition for innovation. Math is, after all, where you can learn how to work within parameters to make your own possibilities, not follow a set of rules that someone else gives you. It sometimes feels like the steps I’m taking to get my classroom there are SO small! But I have to remember that it’s the taking of the steps that matters.

How to Learn Math – Jo Boaler Course Begins

Boaler – Session 01 – 1.1 – Math Perception Concept Map – DEABREU

I’ve just been able to start the Jo Boaler course – getting married this summer is exciting and means I’m not going to be able to give this course the attention I would like. On the other hand, I’m getting married this summer to a truly wonderful woman who I can’t be thankful enough for. 🙂

The course has started out great. Lots of data has been shared already about perceptions of mathematics and the journey people have taken with the subject. And it’s just beginning.

In session 1.1, Boaler asks students to make a concept map of the comments made by people interviewed about their experiences with mathematics. Here is that concept map.

Boaler - Session 01 - Math Perception - DEABREU


Making Groupwork Happen

I’ve been investigating complex instruction (CI) over the past few months as part of my M.Ed at the University of British Columbia. CI offers an approach for teachers to use in their classrooms to temper the status differences that inevitably arise in group work situations. I first came across the approach when doing some further research on a school called Railside, a name given by Stanford mathematics education professor Jo Boaler to an ethnically diverse, urban school in southern California. Boaler conducted a longitudinal study there and at two other local area schools to study learning gains and found something else.

At Railside, all of the teachers in the mathematics department were using CI, and their students not only demonstrated great learning gains, but showed an appreciation for the power and beauty of mathematics that teachers yearn to pass on to their students and a desire to improve they way they worked in groups so that they could sustain the learning community that had evolved in their classes. Intrigued, I decided to investigate further.

CI explores access issues that take place when group work is implemented. We teachers have all seen students who were too shy to contribute, or who were deemed unable to do the task, or who simply sat back and let others do the work while the rest of their classmates got frustrated. However, thinking of it in terms of an access issue, if we place students together for the purpose of learning and only some students do the work while others are forced out or choose not to participate, not all students have the same access to the learning that is meant to take place in groups.

For many teachers, group work is daunting to implement because of these and the plethora of other problems that can come up. How do I ensure that students truly work together to create a group product that they all contributed to? How do I ensure individual accountability for the contributions students make in their group? How do I ensure students are learning? Naturally, I was skeptical of this new approach. After all, if it is based on over 20 years of classroom research, and two books have been published, why isn’t it already widespread?

Components of Complex Instruction

The answer to that final question still escapes me. CI seems to have all the bases covered. CI starts with a multidimensional classroom – one where academic success is measured on many different abilities, such as coming up with different solutions, explaining solutions, justifying solutions, using different representations, making a model of your solution, asking good questions, and so on. Quite simply, more students have success because there are more ways to have success.

Tasks and group roles are structured to be “group worthy” – so that students have to work interdependently to complete the task successfully. The roles also enable the delegation of authority so that the class can achieve a state of decentralized control. This allows the teacher to move around to assist and prompt students as needed.

Two treatments are recommended as the teacher is circulating. First, the multiple abilities treatment involves the teacher continuing to reinforce – in words as well as through classroom structure – that no one will have all of the abilities to complete a task themselves, but everyone in the group has at least one of the abilities. Second, through the assigning competence treatment, teachers listen intently to group discussions and interject to purposefully raise the status of something a low-status student has shared in a group.

CI is incredibly ambitious in what it sets out to achieve. CI seeks to improve student achievement, collaborative skills, metacognition, equitable participation, student autonomy, and approaches to learning. That’s just about everything that any teacher could possibly hope for their class of students!

My Contribution

Founders of CI state very clearly that all of this hinges on the task that students gather around. So, for my final M.Ed project, I will be investigating what a CI task looks like and design my own task (perhaps a whole unit) and reflect on this design process. I have the fortune of being able to attend Designing Effective Groupwork in Mathematics, a workshop offered by CI practitioners at the University of Washington. As I move forward to teaching at Branksome Hall Asia next year, I am interested to move from theory to practice and examine the feasibility of the use of CI in my classroom, and will post my thoughts as I go here.


Free mathematics CI tasks are available on the NRICH and the Complex Instruction Consortium websites, and Dan Meyer intends that CI be used for his Three-Act Math Tasks. See a CI lesson presented by Dan Meyer from his talk given at Cambridge University in March of this year. This gives you a great look at some of the ideas I’ve discussed above.

Also, if anyone is interested, Boaler is offering a free online course for teachers and parents through Stanford University called How to Learn Math. It’s available July 15 to September 27, 2013. Pass this on to interested parents and teachers!


Math and Place-Based Education

A scene from Central Vietnam, Photo by Rob DeAbreu

A scene from Central Vietnam, Photo by Rob DeAbreu

Place-based education (PBE) is based on the fundamental idea that places are pedagogical – they teach us about the world and how our lives fit into the spaces we occupy. It began with community education and community-as-classroom – the idea that students could learn by paying closer attention to their community and doing work within it. The idea has since expanded to investigate the learning that happens in field-trips or long-term projects outside of the classroom, to examine the pedagogy of places of all sizes and locations, and to explore the meanings that different people attach to place. One can argue, that – to an extent – there is an activism component against the current state of the education system, which – in most cases – assumes that the school (and the classroom) is the place where learning occurs.

For Dr. David Gruenewald (2003) – who now goes by the name David Greenwood – place-based education (PBE) is in large part a response to standards, testing, and accountability, the threefold education reform movement of the last two to three decades (though grounded in some much older ideologies). As mathematics is the gatekeeper discipline to many careers and university programs – whether with a mathematics component or not – it is a discipline that, it could be argued, is the target of PBE’s response. With this in mind, it is no surprise that Gruenewald/Greenwood (in Green, 2005) expressed his skepticism about the possibilities of developing place-conscious mathematics. However, is mathematics – the very tool incorrectly used to assess students, and thus misunderstood by so many – the ideal vehicle to drive PBE’s response to misguided education reform?

Classroom, by evmaiden

Classroom, by evmaiden

Much has been written about cultural border-crossing in science education – challenges that students come to when negotiating between their life-world and the culture of the discipline of science (Aikenhead & Jegede, 1999; Jegede & Aikenhead, 1999; Jegede, 1995). Similar arguments have been made by Boaler (1993, 1998) and Schoenfeld (1989) that a similar struggle, manifesting in difficulties in knowledge transference, goes on in mathematics education. PBE acknowledges the divide between students’ life world, and the culture of school and mathematics, and Gruenewald/Greenwood (in Green, 2005) cites it as a result of the disconnected place – the school and the classroom – that students are meant to learn in each day. So, PBE can contribute to mathematics education, and mathematics can contribute to the activist elements of PBE. I disagree with Gruenewald’s challenge that place-conscious math can’t exist.  Gruenewald/Greenwood (2003) himself says, “people make places and places make people” (p. 621). PBE embraces our agency to leverage the power of place in our lives and learning just as it acknowledges the influence that place has over our identity. While learning must take place in a physical classroom in most schools, with all the aspects of schools that this entails (timed periods, separate subjects, etc.), it does not mean that we should give up trying to transcend the barriers and isolation that schools can create. In the interview, Gruenewald/Greenwood (in Green, 2005) points out that in the process of “aligning” curriculum and standards, curriculum is treated as a means to an end (to meet the standards) and is forever altered. How do we mediate the two? If we can’t, what changes can we make to enable schools to connect students better with the outside world?

Technology is a given, by Scott McLeod

Technology is a given, by Scott McLeod

One could argue that the infusion of technology in our classrooms further removes us from our world – because technology forces us to perceive our world through a screen and interact with it through a machine. There are others who would argue that technology connects us – like I am connecting with you right now having made my ideas available for comment, or like many professionals and friends connect using Twitter and other social media.  In a different way, a framework like ethnomathematics is one way to enact PBE in mathematics – by inviting students to be aware of other places and cultures that surround us. Perhaps by being inspired by the mathematics embedded in others’ and our own cultural practices, students can transcend the classroom space and acquire the learning that we seek for them. Regardless of what solution is suggested, however, can we transcend place? Or does the fact that students are located in a classroom during the day completely undermine the ability to enact PBE? And, if we can transcend place – that is, if the place they are in (school and classroom) recedes from consciousness as teachers attempt to enact PBE – does this mean that we have enacted PBE successfully or failed to enact it?

I have more questions than answers about this at the moment. One of the purposes of PBE is to catalyze a dialogue about place and education, so perhaps finding “ways” to make it “work” isn’t really the point!


Gruenewald, D. (2003). Foundations of place: A multidisciplinary framework for place-­‐conscious education. American Educational Research Journal, 40, 3, 619-­‐654.

Green, C. (2005). Selecting the Clay: Theorizing place-­‐based mathematics education in the rural context (Interview with David Gruenewald). Rural Mathematics Educator. ACCLAIM.

Smith, G. (2002). Going local. Educational Leadership, September 30-­‐33.

Boaler, J. (1993) The role of contexts in the mathematics classroom: Do they make mathematics more ‘real’? For the learning of Mathematics, 13(2), 12-­‐17.

Boaler, J. (1998). Open and closed mathematics: Student experiences and understandings. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 29, 41-­‐62.

Schoenfeld, A. H. (1989). Explorations of Students’ Mathematical Beliefs and Behavior. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 20(4), 338–355.

Aikenhead, G. S., & Jegede, O. J. (1999). Cross‐cultural science education: A cognitive explanation of a cultural phenomenon. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36(3), 269–287.

Jegede, O. J. (1995). Collateral Learning and the Eco-Cultural Paradigm in Science and Mathematics Education in Africa. Studies in Science Education, 25, 97–137.

Jegede, O. J., & Aikenhead, G. S. (1999). Transcending cultural borders: Implications for science teaching. Research in Science & Technological Education, 17(1), 45–66. doi:10.1080/0263514990170104