Thursday, February 18, 2010

Group work pt I

Before coming to Boston Partners in Education and becoming a Math Rules! volunteer, I had never worked with and helped tutor a small group of students on math before. My personal experience with math in elementary school and higher was doing individual math homework and discussing problems in class. I rarely worked with another student on class problems except in fifth grade. I was given an "advanced" math book and told to work with my good friend on the advanced math. I somehow got ahead of her on the homework, and ended up working mostly by myself with the occasional group work when helping my friend.

That ends my experiences with math group work. In other subjects, I dreaded group work. Group projects usually meant I would end up doing a significant portion of the work while other groups members slack off and still get credit for the work I did. I would later learn that this is called social loafing and happens in all kinds of group work activities. I think the main problem with group work is that teachers don't manage the small groups well enough. It's one thing to put students in a small group, but another to make sure all groups and individuals are contributing equally.

Math Rules! provides more structure to small groups, with an academic mentor, the group isn't supposed to exhibit social loafing. The way that Math Rules! is set up builds off the Investigations curriculum that Boston Public Schools uses for elementary schools. I honestly didn't know what Investigations was until I went to Math Rules! training. Even then, it wasn't until I started volunteering in an actual classroom to understand how the curriculum works. Investigations is a different approach to math education with more focus on the multiple approaches and perspectives to a math problem. Showing and explaining your process is more important than the final answer itself. The Investigations curriculum also encourages and works best in small group situations, where students work together to come up with possible solutions for a problem.

Many studies have shown that small group work is ideal for students. Although I couldn't get the full article, this study summarizes that "pupils in the fifth grade produced superior answers on questions requiring original contributions" and that group work creates "classroom conditions that foster positive social interaction and productive intellectual activity." The article also notes that small groups allow students to develop "investigation and problem-solving [skills], with pupils cooperating in seeking and interpreting knowledge from a variety of sources." On top of it all, this study was done over 30 years ago. Other studies and many years of research have shown that group work is most beneficial for students in a variety of subjects and across age groups. "Group work also helps students practice essential social, problem solving and communication skills needed for success in the workplace." Students who never get a chance to work with other students face difficulties in the future jobs that more often than not require working in groups and teams.


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