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.

Roles and Complex Instruction: Getting the School Year Started

small group work by susan sermoneta

small group work by susan sermoneta

This past week, I have started preparing for a new school year and reflecting on some of the classroom structures I want to refine. While I’ve studied complex instruction during my M.Ed, I am still very new to implementing it in the classroom so I thought I would throw out some ideas here about group work structures that I’m thinking about implementing. Particularly, I’m wondering about some of the specific aspects of these structures and whether they may have impact on positive outcomes I’m trying to achieve. In this post, I will particularly discuss the administration of roles in group work and complex instruction. Please post suggestions or thoughts below in the comments.

First, I’ve been reading Smarter Together with interest, and have decided to implement their suggested roles for group work: Facilitator, Inclusion Manager, Recorder/Reporter, and the Resource Manager.

  • The facilitator’s role will be to encourage the completion of the task by getting the group off to a quick start, and checking if all of the group members understand what is going on along the way.
  • The inclusion manager will oversee the behavior in groups, keeping people on task, keeping discussion focused on the task at hand, and ensuring students play their roles.
  • The recorder/reporter will make sure data is being recorded and will present group findings at the end of the class.
  • The resource manager will obtain and put back resources that are needed for each task, supervise clean-up of the group’s table, and will bring group questions to the teacher.

I’m keen to use this structure as these roles and the responsibilities are not completely separated. There is enough overlap to avoid confusion among students regarding what each is supposed to do, yet the responsibilities are structured so that students remain interdependent throughout the task ahead of them. I’m planning to rotate these roles to give each student a chance to fulfill different group work responsibilities and build different skills needed in group work – and so students each have access to all the roles. I won’t rotate mechanically but rather plan to use a developmental framework developed during the Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills project coordinated by Patrick Griffin, Esther Care, and others at the University of Melbourne. I hope to use this developmental framework to help me decide when to place students in particular roles, and what kinds of interventions are needed to help them build collaborative problem solving skills. It’s my first time through trying this out after their MOOC this summer, and so wish me luck!

Which way for happiness? by Andrea Marutti

Which way for happiness? by Andrea Marutti

Last year, I struggled with deciding when to rotate groups and their members. Some of the literature I read suggested randomly choosing members for groups and reshuffling (again, randomly) groups and members after every two weeks, enforcing the fact that students couldn’t just change groups and had to learn to work with those they were paired with. However, I found that the group folders – where students put their collaborative work for reference at a later time – broke down as a system since students might have been part of two or three groups during an entire unit of study. My feeling this year is that I will only randomly choose group members after a unit of study has been completed and each of the groups has gone through that complete journey together. I wonder, though, whether this will cause conflict for students if they end up in groups with someone they don’t work well with. It remains to be seen what issues come up and I welcome any ideas about this.

A second wondering I have is how to teach my students about these roles and structures when all of them have the added challenge of being EAL/ELL learners to varying degrees? Specifically, I am thinking about the plethora of information that I will need them to take in and act on: roles and their responsibilities, norms for behavior when working in groups, language they should use to perform each role effectively, language they should use in general when working through a math problem (making observations, analysis, etc.), and the language of the developmental framework so they can understand how to develop their collaborative skills. When I consider as well the other classroom administrative vocabulary that come along with teaching in the MYP and communicating changes for Next Chapter, the challenge becomes so much more daunting. Of course, I don’t expect them to “get it” right away, but I don’t want to throw so much at them that they just turn away from it completely. I plan to put posters up, and refer to them often as I roll through activities at the start of the year particularly directed at helping to make these roles and group work behaviours explicit.

For all learners, skills to promote successful collaboration are essential to learn for many aspects of living in the world. For EAL/ELL learners, collaborative activities can create the need for them to practice vocabulary and promote language acquisition at the same time. However, I am keenly aware that piling too many challenges on students creates the danger of doing many things a satisfactory level instead of doing a few things well. Still, one can’t develop a system that works in their classroom without some thoughtful experimentation!

Research in Our Classroom

Structure, Photo by p medved

Structure, Photo by p medved

I have been questioning lately what methods I can use to understand my students better – not just their work, but their experience of mathematics in my classroom and of the subject in general. I’m taking a uniquely structured (I mean this as a good thing!) research methodology class with Dr. Susan Gerofsky and Dr. Cynthia Nicol here at the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at UBC (In fact, it can only be characterized as “standard” insofar as it is a course requirement for my program). Our exploration of research methods has been helpful both in learning methods that one can use for academic research and in reflecting on ways I will be able to investigate my practice when I return to the classroom.

I’ve been used to some pretty standard ways of “getting to know” students. We give them assessments to perform – a variety of types of tasks from tests to open-ended, long-term projects – to give us a sense of their understanding of the concepts of the course they’re taking. Throughout the year we might give them written surveys telling us a bit about how they’re feeling about our teaching or about the course’s progress or our teaching subject in general. We likely give formative checks for understanding through observation, a quick chat, an “exit card“, or visible thinking routines. Regardless of how much information that can be gained from some of these standard and non-standard ways of collecting data, might there be something missing? Might there be something to be gained from collecting information through a different medium – and from involving them in the information gathering process?

Freedom, Photo by Josef Grunig

Freedom, Photo by Josef Grunig

In Donal O. Donoghue‘s (2007) article on boys’ masculinity in places outside the classroom, Donoghue uses photography and a/r/tography methodology to create meaning with boys aged 10 and 11 rather than to use them to discover and make truth claims (as most research does in treating research “subjects” as if they are being used to gain knowledge about something). According to Donoghue (2007), “doing research in and through art offers opportunities to capture and represent that which is not always linguistic – that which can be more profitably represented and understood through nonverbal forms of communication” (p. 63). My conflict with this type of research is that I see both sides. I see that it offers a different way to view a sensitive topic – using non-verbal “data” (i.e.: photographs) through the view of 10 and 11 year olds – a  view that has the potential to reveal something never before explored. However, I can see also the risk of  photographs to be open to a much wider scope of interpretation than written data might be. So, based on what this method offers us – and does not offer us – Donoghue’s (2007) words make me both optimistic and nervous: “how we do and represent research is inseparable from what gets communicated” (p. 64).

Comparing our work with interviewing methods for research purposes, and reflecting on similarities and differences with the use of photography as detailed by Donoghue (2007), I notice more similarities between them. As with interviewing, photography has the potential for inviting the participant into the research process, and offers non-verbal representation (interviewing does this through gesture and tone of voice). Both need to be examined within the social and cultural contexts in which the product (speech, photograph, art, etc.) is produced. However, which is liable to produce more accurate interpretation? For example, are we more likely to get an accurate view of what a child thinks of our subject if we ask them to tell us, or if we ask them to take a picture that represents how they feel and discuss the photo choice with us? The old cliché about pictures and words comes to mind, but beyond that, one could argue that reading and re-reading a script made from an interview can continue to create just as many new meanings as can having a look and a second/third/fourth look at a photo. The difference between interviewing and photography that I can see is that interviewing offers the potential for a much more fixed, rigourous process, whereas the use of photography, to a large extent, is itself a commitment to embrace a research method that involves the participant much more in the process.

Regardless of these structural aspects, there might be something to the use of photographs to find out more about students’ thinking. Consider school culture. When you ask a student to write down feedback, like in a survey, this structured written form is similar to what students experience in other parts of school and there may be strong psychological aspects at play governing their answers. However, exit cards are casual and quick, often on 3×5 cards which is not specifically how class tasks are done – which may cause them to open up a bit further. So, if you ask students to send you a digital photo with a description as a way of answering a question (of course, if this is logistically possible in your context), this could provide you with different information that you would have otherwise received using a different format.

References

Donoghue, D. O. (2007). “James always hangs out here”: making space for place in studying masculinities at school. Visual Studies, 22(1), 62–73. doi:10.1080/14725860601167218