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‘Expert Groups’ and Similar Triangles

March 19, 2012

I’ve always been interested in the ‘Jigsaw’ classroom structure – it’s one of those things I’ve heard about as ‘If you can pull off a jigsaw, your kids will learn so much! And they’ll learn to work with each other! And they’re teaching each other, so it’s even more meaningful!’. I guess, when people tell me about it, it hits all the right notes for meaningful group work. Anyway – I finally found a good place to try it and it seemed to work pretty well, so I thought I’d share it.

Here’s the formula that led to this lesson: I’ve been wanting to try a Jigsaw all year + end of Similarity unit where we talk about interesting real-world problems + group whiteboards + day after modeling/discussing problems as a class = Expert Groups (which isn’t actually anything super innovative – I’ve seen this idea in writings on group dynamics before)

The Explanation: I have my classes arranged in pods of 4. I passed out one problem to each pod. I told the groups that for the next 10 minutes, each group was going to become an  expert on this problem and that during these 10 minutes, I am going to do everything in my power to help them become experts – I’m going to check their answers, ask them questions, show them the next steps if they get stuck – do whatever is necessary for them to become experts. This is important because after those 10 minutes, I’m going to give them the sheet of paper that has  all the questions on it and they have to answer all of them before the end of the period. But, this shouldn’t be too bad, because there are 4 experts for every question around the room – so if you get stuck, just find an expert. It is important to me that every person in the group understand and that every person be able to explain their problem – this is important because if someone asks you how to do it, you better be able to explain it. This is also important because if you ask me how to do it, I’m gonna shrug my shoulders and tell you to ask the expert.

The Problems: http://www.box.com/s/f151dae28d9ca61708e5. To start, each group received only one of these problems – eventually, they had to complete all of them. Some are harder than others – in my opinion, the Sun and Surveying problems are the hardest to set up without assistance, while the Hulk and Mirror/Shadow problems are the easiest.

The Implementation: I had one student from each group grab a group whiteboard and each group first answered the problem on the whiteboard. As they worked, I walked around and checked in with groups (actually, I sat down with the groups that I knew would need help starting, but after that they were good to go). As groups finished, I checked their answers, prodded a few students in the group for explanations, then gave them the worksheet with all 8 problems. They were to write in their work in the box of the problem they did and write ‘Expert’ in that box, since they’re the expert on that problem. Once they were done, they were to erase the whiteboard and return it to the front of the room (this is an important detail – see comments below about copying). As most groups were copying their work to their paper, I interrupted them to remind them that at this point, I was going to shrug my shoulders a whole lot and tell them to ask their peers if they didn’t know something. I then encouraged them to move around the room and work through problems.

Observations: Some students preferred to work on the problems individually and just work through the worksheet as if it were a homework assignment – these were mostly my higher-achieving students who could get away with this. Some students immediately flocked to the nearest table and asked what they were the expert on and started asking them how to do the problem. I sat on the fringes of some groups and listened to conversations and was happy with what I heard – I think this activity was so successful because of the questioning/explanation culture I’ve instilled in my students – I don’t think this activity would have run as smoothly if I had tried it in the first month of school when I was still creating this culture. Students mimicked my questioning strategies and some of my comments (for example, I say ‘I disagree’ or ‘I agree’ a lot instead of ‘right’/’wrong’, etc – I heard a lot of kids saying this, which encouraged discussion). It wasn’t all perfect though – some kids just traded papers and started to copy – or, if groups didn’t erase their whiteboards, students came up and just started copying the work. I had to keep my eye out for this at the beginning and tell students that they were to give explanations, not just answers. This requires a discussion. Then I sat and waited for the students to have that discussion (one of those moments where you have to spend 5 minutes with one student, but then that student will never repeat the behavior again – or at least not in that class period).

This activity was the most successful with my two lowest-achieving classes – they worked well together and seemed to be actively trying to understand what their peers were saying. Also, letting some students become expert on a particular problem equalized a lot of the ability levels in the classroom and raised the confidence of my lower achieving students. I talked to one of my lowest achieving students and she said she liked that she had so much time to really understand a problem, which made it easier for her to go around and ask others for help – she felt like she had something to contribute, which made it easier to talk to others. This is something I struggled with early in the year – finding ways to do group work that somehow equalized ability levels while also holding them accountable – so I was happy to hear this feedback.

Next Time: 10 minutes was too short for students to become experts – 15 minutes would have been better. Also, build in a way for students to check their own answers – this was the biggest bottleneck in the procedure (waiting for me to tell students if they were right or wrong).

Blogging Notes: As I type this sentence, it’s been about a week and a half since I wrote the paragraphs above. This post turned into a reflection on group activities in general which, after some editing, I decided to chop off and make it’s own post. It turned into a doozy. You can read it here

Update 3/19: I’m not the only one who’s tried expert groups. This post has better advice re: classroom management and giving students more of a set jigsaw structure (move to expert group, move back to home group, what to expect for transitions, etc). In my version, once students become experts, they can work individually if they want or find an expert – their call – so there’s a lot of movement, sometimes chaotically and excitedly.

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