My Favorite Way To Teach

Break your students up into teams of 4. (It's recommended that you have one high ability, two medium, and one low)

Give each group a piece of construction paper: red, blue, yellow, or green. Have one student tape it to the edge of the desk.

Have each student within the teams pick a color: red, blue, yellow, or green.

Give students a handout of problems.

Pick a problem, not #1, to start with. That way students can't jump ahead because they never know what problem you will call out next. (Crafty, I know.) Or else they will jump ahead and do the entire worksheet. Ah, can't stop the overachiever. Give students one minute, no talking, to attempt the problem on their own.

Then, tell them to talk it over with group. Get an answer and an explanation. Circulate the room and make sure each person in each group can explain how to solve the problem.

Now...bring in the big guns:

Click go. The timer randomly chooses a color aka the team. Click go again. The timer randomly chooses a color aka the team member. The team member now stands, addresses the class, and explains how to get the correct answer.

The end.

  1. Giving students one minute to start on their own gives their brains time to warm up and start thinking. 
  2. You already know the benefits of team work. 
  3. Giving each team member a color and then randomly choosing who explains is the best part. It's not a personal attack, it's random. It's not focusing on Johnny or Suzie but on the blue team member. They have a team to rely on help and explanation, so they aren't left hanging.
  4. Accountability exists. No one knows when they will be randomly chosen to 'teach' the class and (almost) no one wants to risk looking stupid in front of their friends. So a little intrinsic motivation to learn.
  5. Students teach other. They come up with better ways to explain, they come up with more than one way to explain, and they are just more willing to hear each other. 
  6. They feel like they are doing less work because they are in groups and have some freedom to talk. Except they are doing more work, and in my case, harder work.
  7. Time goes by faster. For them and you.
  8. Your job becomes checker and correcter vs. lecturer.
  9. They are discussing math. They are participating, they are asking questions, they are making connections. Instead of you giving them the bridge to walk on, they are building it piece by piece. (I made that up myself)
  10. It is MUCH easier to plan. And impressive to your superiors.


  1. Your chairs might get out of order. I mean, for those of you who may be anal about that sort of thing...


  1. I like that.

    Of course 4*4=16 and my classes are way bigger than that. I could use groups of 4 still, and rolling a die would get me numbers for 6 groups, but that's still only 24. I start the semester with 40+ students. Hmm...

    Maybe I could break out the D&D dice, a tetrahedral for which group member, and a ten-sided die for which group. I think I have those...

  2. Another disadvantage, one common to all mixed-group activities. The bright students spend a lot of time being bored or having to teach the slow students, rather than learning something new themselves.

  3. "The bright students spend a lot of time being bored or having to teach the slow students, rather than learning something new themselves."

    Teaching is the best way to learn something more deeply. You might be interested in Jo Boaler's book, What's Math Got to do With it?, which describes the benefits of classrooms which use groupwork, open-ended problems, and heterogenous grouping.

  4. Sue,
    You could also make your own color spinner and then use however many colors necessary for your class. Then spin the wheel instead of dice. But, dice would work well too.

    If you're going to make a negative comment, at least suggest a positive solution. Instead of just pointing out holes, how about you help us fill them? What I've found so far is that my bright students figure out more than one way to explain, or they figure out new things on their own because they are given time to think, discuss, and play around with the math. No, it is not the perfect solution for every kid- nothing is. But are things better than before? Yes. Very much so. You may not be a fan of group work but I don't see how a lecture/take notes structure keeps bright students from being bored either.

  5. I do have some suggestions in my post at http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2010/07/17/group-work/

    Basically, group work is productive when the work that needs to be done is large enough that multiple people is more efficient than one person, or naturally structured in a way that requires cooperative effort (theater, sports, orchestra, choir, ...).

    About 1/3 of my courses require group projects (at the senior/grad school level) and I've found that many of the students I get have been so burned by forced group work in grade school and high school that they want nothing to do with it when it is necessary.

    Tutoring other students can be useful to solidify one's learning, and some students do benefit from having to explain their reasoning.
    Peer tutoring is most effective when everyone in the group is very close in level and learning speed.

    Many parents and students are irritated by holding back the faster students to use them as free teachers, particularly when they are covering stuff in class that they learned a long time ago. Unfortunately, schools that swear by group work often also support heterogeneous grouping, ensuring that there is a range of several years difference in readiness for new material.

  6. But surely this type of worksheet based stuff is assessment of what has Bern learned rather than actual learning? After all, if you have a problem of a type learners had never seen, or related to a concept that had never been taught, then it wouldn't work. Don't get me wrong, this seems a good way of assessing learning, and I am a fan of group work. But I would be interested in seeing how you actually teach a new concept.

  7. Cazz,

    I elaborated on how this teaching technique works for me in a separate post.

    Hopefully that clears things up.

    I have had no complaints from parents and I don't feel as if I'm using 'free teachers'. I can only think of one group where a students is bored because they are so intelligent. In all other groups, students are feeding off of each other and there is no one genius all-star. I am still the teacher and I am still checking their work and explaining so the 'paid teacher' is still doing her job.

    In my classroom, group work consists mainly of conversation and debate rather than one person doing all the work. So far, all students are still doing their own work but are either drawing conclusions from each other or helping each other fill in missing pieces. Yes, there are some who copy down work without understanding, but that is not affecting anyone's grade but their own. It is their responsibility to make sure they gain understanding, either through their team or myself.

    I did read your post, and like most other posts of yours I've read, it seems like a diatribe about how what high school teachers do won't work for or harms students at the college level. I'm sorry that you feel that way and wish that there were more college level teaching blogs, but that does not mean our strategies and ideas are no good. You tend to leave a negative digital footprint that isn't leading many people very far.

  8. I used this fabulous worksheet in my 8th grade geometry class this week, and the students LOVED it! I did not have them do group work though. They started on it individually in class, and could ask a neighbor for help if they needed. Any unfinished problems became HW. The next day, I had THEM present a problem on the board, but they didn't know which one they'd present until I drew their names. I gave them 5 minutes to compare and discuss their answers with a neighbor. I also told them I'd check that their answers were correct before they presented so they wouldn't be embarrassed. The kicker was, they were graded both on their performance as a presenter AND as an audience member. The students were silent and attentive 95% of the time which is a rarity for this class! They loved being in front of their peers teaching, and I loved it especially since I was voiceless that day! I had a clinical instructor walk in that class period, and she was mesmerized by their presentations. The students have asked for more assignments like this! THANK YOU SO MUCH!

  9. Celeste,
    Now I feel like I have made it as a big time blogger. Another teacher has used my idea and it worked. Success! I love that you used it in a totally different way. The more flexible we are, the more options that are available to us. This is probably the most meaningful comment I've ever received. Thank you so much for taking time to share this with me.

  10. I'm a new teacher - and a big fan of peer learning and group work. However I was a little concerned my high ability year 9 class would not like group work (because many people remark how competitive high ability students can be) - so imagine my surprise when in the "getting to know you" class survey I discovered many students saying they liked group work and they like working with their friends. Only one out 28 students wrote they did not like group work. And I didn't even mention group work in the survey - I just asked what they liked and didn't like about maths.

    So love your idea and I'll be trying it this week. And for the higher ability class .. well - the worksheet will just be tougher! I'll let the students give me a difficulty rating at the end of the lesson.

  11. enzuber,

    It's great to hear that your students want the style of teaching that you want to do! What will you do for the one student who dislikes group work? Allow them to work alone, so they get their preference also?

    What would you have done if the students had hated group work as you had expected?

  12. I'm interested in the student views because it tells me how I should approach group work with that class. If the class had given me a resounding 'no' I would have asked them at some stage - once we had built good rapport - if they would at least give it a try - and I would have tried more simple group methods. For the student who has said they don't like groupwork - well I've acknowledged their preference - and I will come back to that person for feedback later. Given their stated objection and the fact that groupwork is not really an ingrained tradition in mathematics teaching, I would provide non-group alternatives for assessible tasks.

    While not every student is going to respond to peer-learning, the evidence is clear that overall it produces improved student outcomes - both for the student-learner and the student-teacher. Visible Learning (Hattie, 2009) reports an effect size of 0.55 - based on a meta-analysis of 767 peer-reviewed studies (p.186) Coming from an analytical background, I have confidence in Hattie's approach to what consitutes good evidence and how to assess it - especially since his work has thrown cold water on many trendy teaching ideas.

  13. enzuber,
    I'm so glad your students surprised you! Did you try the worksheet yet? Have you tried any group work? I like your idea of a difficulty rating. I do that very informally by asking them if it was easy, medium, or hard. What I'd like to do is paint part of my chalkboard (or a random piece of metal) red, yellow, and green. Then I would have a magnet for each student. As they're leaving the classroom, they move their magnet to the color they felt about the lesson. But, should my magnets have names on it or just numbers so as not to embarrass anyone? Oh, I just thought of using numbers! lol Then I could glance up there and know who hasn't put one up yet!

    You raise a good point. I heard some good advice at a math conference held by the Pippins. They told us to provide an option for the students who don't like group work or who aren't feeling it on a particular day. Give the students the option to work alone or whatever, but make sure that every one knows they will be responsible for doing the work.

  14. Haven't use the worksheet yet - but I did do my first groupwork with this class just today. I gave them an open-ended problem related to the current topic, asked them to work in groups of three (part of the problem could be split into three parts for those who wanted to divvy up the work a bit), then asked them to provide their responses in written form in edmodo - followed by a brief class presentation. The students loved it and came up with very creative responses - and did some good learning along the way. A quick thumbs-up/thumbs down poll showed 26/28 thought it was a great lesson.

    Re your magnets: what a nice quick visual way to do it. I would keep them anonymous so you get better quality feedback. An edmodo poll (if your students have laptops) is equally anonymous and fast and convenient.

  15. enzuber,
    I need car magnets to go with my stoplight theme!!

    We don't have laptops...yet.

    For your written responses, was that required from every individual or every group? I think it's important to randomly select kids or make all kids explain. Putting it into words is the most powerful part!

  16. Love the idea and the electronic "picker". How fun! Middle school students adore the extras like that. You are a font of knowledge for me today! : )

  17. Julie,
    Did you see where @k8nowak mentioned the 'random word chooser' in the SMARTboard notebook gallery? You can put your students names in and have it randomly select a person. Love!