This term for me was quite a ride. I was teaching a full course load, taking my second to last PhD course, working on dissertation stuff, travelling to conferences, and trying to have a bit of a life too. It was my first term teaching a Math 12 equivalent upgrading course at my institution. The first round of teaching a course always has it’s challenges. Luckily I had some material to work from. However, I like getting creative with my teaching, and I always want to make changes. It never ends. Now that this crazy term is over, I have some time for reflection.
One thing in particular that I have been reflecting on recently, is my use of groups. I always start my term off with the use of random grouping, whiteboards, and problems (Hat tip to my advisor Peter Liljedahl). Lots of engagement is created with this, and it establishes the tone for a thinking classroom. I was impressed with how my students pushed me and questioned why everything is the way it is when they came across something. There were a lot of debates and opportunities for starting up mathematical arguments.
Fine and dandy.
However, there was one interesting occurrence. My students went through a bit of an emotional experience while writing a test while I was away (at a conference . . . and stuck in another country) and this changed the dynamics of my classroom completely.
I got the evil stare from many when I arrived back, and I worked really hard to recreate a good learning atmosphere.
One thing that came up was the use of random groups. Students really wanted to stick to working with students they found helpful to their learning. Fair enough. So I let this emerge naturally. Groups settled into these sort of learning pods, and people felt comfortable moving around to talk with others from different groups. Problems were tackled, questions were formed, justifications were made . . . great! I don’t think the groups would have worked quite this well had they not been placed in random groups for the first four weeks.
In retrospect, I notice that the groups that formed seemed aligned in their attitudes towards the course, their goals of learning, their mathematical abilities, and in the end, groups tended to receive the same grades. Now some of these things may have caused them to be drawn to each other, while other may have developed out of each group’s subculture. It’s interesting to me in what conditions a teacher should pursue random grouping, and in what conditions, a teacher should let them emerge (as I felt I needed to in this term). Either way, this indicates how strong the social is in learning.