Complex Instruction

I visit a lot of schools and a lot of math classes. To be honest, those visits are often disappointing. Many math classes, at many schools, are depressingly similar: going over the homework; the presentation of a microskill by the teacher, while many students are thinking about something else; students starting the day’s homework based on that microskill…

Once, many years ago, I had a memorable visit to a school which turned out to be quite different from the norm. Students were engaged, and teachers were aware of what was happening among the students. As compared to my very privileged private school, this school was “on the wrong side of the tracks”, but much of the philosophy was the same: an untracked program, using group work and learning tools (including one of my creations, the Lab Gear.)

Since then, that school’s remarkably successful program has been analyzed by math education researchers, and four books have been written about it. In those books, the school is called “Railside”, in order to protect the privacy of its teachers and students.

I confess that I haven’t read the books, but I have had much contact with teachers from Railside, and I’m a big fan of their approach to group work, which is called “complex instruction”, and was originally developed at Stanford’s School of Education by Dr. Elizabeth Cohen.  A key ingredient of that approach is paying attention to status issues in the classroom, and taking deliberate steps to boost the status of students who need that support. Read more about it in these books!

How Parents and Teachers Can Help Children Learn to Love Their Least Favorite Subject

By Jo Boaler

Strength in Numbers: Collaborative Learning in Secondary Mathematics
By Ilana Horn
Students who work together, succeed together. Isn’t that every teacher’s goal?

Smarter Together! Collaboration and Equity in the Elementary Math Classroom
By Helen Featherstone, Sandra Crespo, Lisa Jilk, Joy Oslund, Amy Parks, Marcy Wood 
The authors describe the lessons they learned using group work, explain how complex instruction helps unsuccessful students, and analyze how to design assignments that support group learning.

“Heterogenius” Classrooms
Detracking Math and Science—A Look at Groupwork in Action

by Maika Watanabe


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