Random Groups

Peter Liljedahl is a math education professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He is interested in helping teachers create what he calls a “thinking classroom,” as contrasted of course with a classroom where the main objective is memorization. I just read two phenomenal papers he wrote. Since his research confirms my beliefs, I will summarize his findings here, starting with “The Affordances of Using Visibly Random Groups in a Mathematics Classroom“. (The paper is also available on ResearchGate.)

I am a long-time practitioner and advocate of random grouping of students. Student-created groups may have their place on occasion, but we all know the pitfalls: students’ goals in forming the groups are often not the pursuit of mathematical understanding. Teacher-created groups are not much better. They may tend to reinforce a fixed mindset: “Am I supposed to be the smart person in this group?” Or they can change the subject from learning to other issues: “Does he think black kids should not be in the same group?” With regularly reshuffled random groups, these questions vanish, and the focus is on the math. I have typically used playing cards to assign groups, changing the groups every two weeks. (Read more about my approach here.)

Cards

Liljedahl researched a system where students are randomly assigned new groups every single day, and stay in those groups for the whole period. Within a few weeks, this policy led to these “easily observable changes”:

  • Students become agreeable to work in any group they are placed in.
  • There is an elimination of social barriers within the classroom.
  • Mobility of knowledge between students increases.
  • Reliance on the teacher for answers decreases.
  • Reliance on co-constructed intra- and inter-group answers increases.
  • Engagement in classroom tasks increase.
  • Students become more enthusiastic about mathematics class.

He spells these out in the paper, which is well worth reading. The teacher in whose class this research was done started assigning better tasks, and said “I’m loving it. I feel like the students are completely different. I’m completely different. It’s like I have a new job and its WAY better than my old one.”

I’ll summarize another paper by Liljedahl, “Building Thinking Classrooms: Conditions for Problem Solving,” in my next post.

— Henri

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