Peter Liljedahl recommends several actions teachers can take in order to develop a classroom atmosphere that fosters conceptual understanding. I would like to highlight three things that will keep students thinking and will have a positive impact on student learning right away. When teachers try these three strategies he says they won’t go back:
1. RANDOM GROUPS
Use random groups every day, sometimes several times in a long class period. Every learner is taken out of his/her comfort zone and levels the ‘learning’ playing field. This allows for more authentic group collaboration, especially when students know that they will constantly be changing groups. Here are some of his suggestions:
a) Use random groups. Don’t try to create homogeneous or heterogenous groups. Don’t put students together according to ability, student interest or student choice. He uses playing cards and hands them out as students come into class. They create groups according to the number on the playing card.
b) Consider optimal group size. Five students is too many & two is too few. Three or four students per group is ideal.
c) Don’t assign specific roles. He doesn’t give students roles such as time keeper, summarizer, note taker, and encourager. Teachers should focus on creating authentic group work and let the roles become self-defined. You can discuss the roles afterwards.
d) Allow students to talk to each other and share information across groups. He encourages students to ‘borrow’ ideas from other groups. This allows for the knowledge to be shared around the classroom and creates a community of learners.
2. NON-PERMANENT WORK SURFACES
When students are learning, let them work in ways that are not permanent. Using dry erase markers on small whiteboards, student desks, and even windows will work. It seems that learners will take more risks when there isn’t a trail of mistakes. Non-permanent work is quick to change and allows students to try different strategies easily.
3. VERTICAL LEARNING
Get learners up and working collaboratively with their classmates. When students sit at their desks they can hide and ‘fake’ doing math work. Brain research also indicates that we learn better when we move around.
Working vertically is also beneficial for teachers. It is easy for a teacher to formatively assess students by observing the way they approach problems, persevere, and generally see how everyone is doing. If needed, a teacher can encourage a group to go for a walk and ‘borrow’ ideas from other groups or offer extension questions.