Using Partner Work and Conferencing in Math

A few months ago during my volunteering, my supervisor introduced me to the idea of Math Sharing Conferences in the classroom, and so far, it is one of my favourite ideas I’ve seen being used during Math. In a nutshell, the activity begins with the students being introduced to a new Math concept in the form of a whole-group lesson. Afterwards, they are presented with a set of 3-4 questions, to be worked on in partners (which have been strategically chosen ahead of time, based upon the students’ academic strengths and needs). The first 2 or 3 questions are designed to reinforce the main ideas from the lesson, and the final question is framed as an extra challenge for the students who finish their work early.

I love this idea for at-risk learners for 2 main reasons: (1) by working in partners, students are both able to split their work load evenly and help one another to problem solve, thus decreasing any stress or anxiety that they may associate with Math tasks, and (2) Once the class has been given ample time to work, the structure of the activity allows for time for the whole class to form a “conference group” and share their strategies with the entire group. This discussion session is great in my opinion, because it gives any interpersonal and verbal-centered learners an opportunity to shine, and it introduces the class to idea that in Math, everyone learns and works differently. I want my students to feel confident in their ability to solve Math problems, and to know that they can do so using an almost endless amount of different strategies. The conference portion of this activity is also a good time to reinforce growth mindset principles with the class, making it an excellent tool for helping at-risk children develop the resilience, determination, and self-confidence that they need to thrive in the Math classroom.

How else can I incoroporate the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model?

Aside from the GRR model itself, there are a number of related techniques that you can use in the classroom, as you assume the role of the More Knowledeable Other. They include:

Scaffolding: This is a crucial componet in helping students develop more responsibility for their learning. It involves starting off with simple tasks, modelling each phase of the learning process, and breaking larger tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks.

Materialization: This strategy can be thought of as using physical objects to help faciliate and solidify student learning. I saw this tactic used VERY frequently in my Kindergarten practicum, and perhaps one of the most common examples of materialization is the use of manipulatives in Math lessons. In my own experiences, I have found that manipulatives are great for any age group, because they allow children to visualize the concepts that you are teaching them, and being able to see, touch, and explore the materials themselves allows for deeper experiential learning.

Private Speech: In the final stages of the GRR model, this takes the form of frequently monitoring one’s own learning through the use of mental directions, monitoring porgress, and self-coaching during difficult tasks. As adults, we do this instinctively, but younger children must be taught this skill explicitly, primarily through the use of think-alouds. During a think-aloud, teachers verbally model the types of phrases that indpendent learners say to themselves, and the sorts of tricks and techniques that they use so that over time, the students begin to build this capacity as well.

 

Some Self-Determination Theory-Inspired Teaching Tactics

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in other posts, it can be hard to picture a theory being used in the classroom simply by reading about it. One of the many aspects of my At-Risk concentration courses that I appreciated the most is the fact that we were equipped with a variety of strategies to apply each of our discussed theories to our own teaching. The following is a list of strageies related to Self-Determination Theory (SDT):

Conferences with students: To me, any teacher looking to use SDT in the classroom should use this technique as a starting point. This is simply because by holding an individual meeting/conference with a struggling student, it is much easier to tell exactly what the problem at-hand is, and what it is likely stemming from (i.e., is it a lack of autonomy, competence, relatedness, or a combination of the three?).

Be human: This technique can indirectly strengthen students’ sense of competence? Why? Being human and owning your mistakes shows your students that everyone is imperfect, and that mistakes are an acceptable (and oftentimes necessary) part of the learning process.

Circle Process: By now, I’ve sung the praises of circle process a LOT. But in addition to a great classroom management technique and instructional approach, circles can be a perfect opportunity for your class to increase their feelings of relatedness. They allow everyone to be seen at once, and to take turns sharing their opinions. This establishes a strong sense of respect and community amongst students over time, and it gives them the sense that what they have to say is both valuable and important.

Co-creating Assignments: This tactic specifically targets students’ autonomy, because by creating assignments and other assessment tasks collaboratively, you are essentially relinquishing a small amount of your control as a teacher, and giving your students the feeling that they have a say in their academic lives. It is also a great idea because it allows the children to be accountable for their own learning and performance, and it can also decrease some of the stress that tends to surround summative assessments.

Mindset and Resilience: Some Strategies to try with Students

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Resiliency Theory and Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset has really resonated with me as a future educator. I believe wholeheartedly that resiliency is one of the key ingredients in overcoming any risk factor, and teachers can play a significant role in helping children to develop this trait over time. Knowing how to go about doing so however, is not always so easy, so I’ve compiled a list of my favourite classroom applications of Mindset and Resiliency Theory, as discussed in my At-Risk concentration course:

  • Place emphasis on strengths: No matter the student, always keep your attention primarily on what he or she CAN do, rather than what he or she CANNOT do. Doing this both implicitly and explicitly will eventually help children to develop a higher level of self-efficacy, confidence, and resilience, because it allows them to see themselves as talented and capable individuals.

 

  • Create a safe and inclusive space: While this is certainly not an overnight process, it can be one of a teacher’s greatest tools in helping children become resilient. This is because inclusive, welcoming, respectful classrooms in which every child feels cared for, loved, and valued as individuals provide a safe space for both academic and personal growth. They give students a haven in which they are free to be their true selves, and this in turn provides the emotional support that they will need to overcome life’s obstacles.

 

  • Learn something new: This technique is aimed at helping kids to unpack their definitions of “intelligence,” and shift their focus from doing everything correctly, to growing as learners and making mistakes along the way. In my curriculum course for Mathematics, I experienced this technique first-hand when I was given the task of learning a new skill that incorporated Mathematics in some way. I chose latch hooking (or rug hooking), and found the experience of stepping back into the shoes of the learner incredibly useful and eye-opening. I think a great idea would be to choose a new skill to learn as an entire class, and to experience each phase of the learning process alongside your students, in order to demonstrate to them the importance of frustration, setbacks, mistakes, and perseverance  in achieving our goals.

 

  • Model Learning Goals: One of the main ways that I incorporated this strategy in my practicum classes was through the use of anchor charts, which I introduced to the class at the start of a new unit, and kept on display in the classroom during work periods. To me, learning goals help students to develop a growth mindset because they focus on individual improvement, knowledge building, and skill development, not on achievement or grades. In order to be successful, learning goals must focus on specific skills, be written in student-friendly language, and make use of “I” or “we” statements. For example, the learning goal for my recent Grade 6/7 Poetry unit was “We are learning to write different types of poetry about topics that are related to one of the four elements (Water, Air, Earth, Fire).” I then expanded on this learning goal with the following success criteria: “The language in my poem uses the 5 senses to help my reader make mental pictures,” “I have used detail and descriptive, creative writing to make my poem sound interesting,” and “my poem is my best possible work.” I chose these criteria because they gave my placement students a goal to focus on, without having them become pre-occupied with a mark. Instead, I wanted them to put their attention towards reaching their potential as writers, and developing new skills along the way.

 

  • Give Praise for Effort: As teachers, it can be easy to fall into the trap of citing ability as the reason for our students’ achievement. But well-intended compliments such as “You’re so smart!” or “Great job– you’re really good at [insert skill or subject area here]!” can potentially backfire because they cause children to develop a fixed mindset about themselves and their successes. Instead, it is often more effective to praise children for their hard work and effort, and expressing genuine pride and excitement when they persevere during a more difficult task. This will let students know that they are capable of improvement, and it also makes them more likely to respond positively to challenges.

Using Self-Regulated Learning Theory in the Classroom

In my opinion, one of the most helpful components of my At-Risk concentration courses were our discussions of theory-related teaching strategies. While I do find educational theory to be incredibly interesting (and I can see the merits in many of them), I personally find it more useful to not discuss a variety of theoretical perspectives, but to bring these ideas to life and apply them to the classroom as well. With regard to Self-Regulated Learning Theory (SRL), there are a wide variety of things that we as teachers can do to help children to develop the skills that are needed in order to monitor their own progress at school.

First of all, one of the main ways to apply SRL to the classroom is through consistent modeling of self-regulatory skills. This is especially true for younger children, who need to receive explicit instruction in order to develop these capacities in themselves. At any grade level though, I would be sure to model self-regulatory skills for my students, and discuss the strategies that I use to keep myself on-task throughout the day. On a similar note, it has been shown that students benefit from the use of frequent check-ins (self and teacher), discussions which isolate certain skills and learning strategies, think-alouds, and the use of anchor charts listing learning goals and success criteria. Another helpful SRL-related strategy is teaching your students about the value of metacognition. I was first introduced to this concept by my Grade 10 English teacher, Mr. Richard, who to this day is still one of my favourites. He explained metacognition in a way that was incredibly straightforward and easy-to-understand, because he told us that it was simply the practice of “thinking about thinking.” In other words, metacognition can be practiced by pausing to think consciously about our own thinking patterns, and the strategies that work best for us as learners. This information was a game-changer for me, and as a student, it helped me to become more self-aware and efficient at keeping my learning and productivity in check. I can definitely see myself using these techniques with my students, regardless of the grade level I end up teaching.