“We need to ensure that classrooms are filled with dialogue and not a monologue.” That statement appears in Grades K-12 Rebound (Fisher, Frey, Smith, Hattie) in the chapter on “recovering learning through instruction.” They describe the research supported impact on student learning when students have opportunities to talk with each other using academic language. “When students have some ideas and are able to discuss those ideas with others, noticing relationships and making connections, learning can accelerate.” Teachers listening as students think aloud can coach with additional information or alternative strategies.
I read about a strategy called visibly random groups (VRG) on a blog by Laura Wheeler. She cites the work of Peter Liljedahl who conducted research on the use of VRG in secondary math classrooms. Sometimes teachers form the groups that students are to work in based on reasons around management or differentiation of abilities or skills. Other times teachers allow students to form their own groupings. VRG removes any effort to be strategic in how groups are set. Instead, teachers use a strategy that publicly, randomly groups students. It could be matching cards or numbers, pieces of pictures, or a tech app that ensures randomness. Liljedahl asked teachers in his study to make group work ubiquitous and to have new groups assigned randomly every day. Lessons began with the generation of random groups for the day. His positive findings from VRG align with what teachers would desire as they look to increase students’ voices and thinking in learning. What some call students doing more of the ‘heavy lifting’ in learning.
- Students become agreeable to work in any group they are placed in—After a while, VRG becomes accepted as the way we do things in this class. The fact that students know the grouping is random and only last for a single class period probably encourages acceptance
- There is an elimination of social barriers within the classroom
A familiarity with classmates arises as students have repeated, short experiences with each other from day to day.
- Mobility of knowledge between students increases
As the frequency of VRG grows and teachers increase the challenge of tasks provided, collaboration with discussion, debate, sharing, and demonstration of ideas increases. A teacher can combine groups with differing ideas in order to extend a debate.
- Students become more enthusiastic about mathematics class…
It appears combing VRG with increasingly challenging tasks generates student engagement that positively impacts learning. Interviewing students after six weeks of a teacher’s use of VRG, Liljedahl gathered these comments: “The beginning of class is like an adventure where you find out who you are working with.” “You really have to think and collaborate in this class.” “It’s hard work but I’m never bored.” “This class is more dynamic.“
After a year of working with VRG, Laura Wheeler wrote,
“The conversations I hear between students while problem-solving this year are far richer than previous years and I believe it also contributes to a positive culture of collaboration & sharing in my classroom.”
Wheeler’s blog also included her recommendation for using Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces (VNPSs). She shares that working vertically, especially with easy erase whiteboards:
- gets students out of their seats which seems to activate their thinking
- allows students to see the work of other groups which gives them ideas of things to try or perhaps what not to try
- allows the teacher to see the work of each group at a quick glance, which prompts feedback and questions to extend their thinking
In a blog on Edutopia, The Student-Centered Math Classroom, Wheeler explores the instructional power of combining challenging learning tasks, with visibly random groups and vertical non-permanent surfaces. She concludes with a call to action that you might use to encourage teachers you are coaching.
“My favorite thing about these strategies is that they can easily be implemented in any classroom. Pick a great problem, greet each student at the door with a random playing card, and get groups solving at the whiteboards, chalkboards, and windows that are already in your classroom. You’ll be amazed at the rich discussions you’ll hear and the deep thinking your students will share.” (Laura Wheeler)