Today I had my students conduct their first online math discussion. I put them into groups by table and gave them some word problems from the book to discuss and solve together. I asked them to solve one problem at a time and to not move on until they had either agreed upon an answer or had agreed that everyone’s answers were logical. (The problems were estimation so there was some variance expected.) Here is an example, with the names blurred out, of the types of discussions that my students were engaged in. The goal is for students to not just share answers but to explain how they would solve the problem, justify their answers to their group mates, understand each others problem solving methods, co-construct a way to solve the problem, and come to a consensus on the best answer or answers for the problem.
Most of my students really seemed to enjoy this, however there were a few that were clearly taken aback by the fast pace of the online discussion. I know how they feel. I remember the first time I tried to follow a Twitter discussion. Mind boggling. So how can I make this a rewarding learning experience for them?
1) Smaller Groups: Because this was a first shot I just had them discuss in their table groups. That’s 5 to 6 kids. Way too many kids. I usually have 3 as a limit for anything involving math and I plan on sticking with that in the future.
2) Ability Grouping: No, it’s not what you think. In fact, although I’ve seen teachers use a lot of homogenous grouping with this type of work, I actually prefer the heterogeneous group. It helps students see all the different ways of solving problems and benefits everyone in the group in one way or another. The ability I’m talking about is online collaboration ability. Some students can easily adapt to the fast paced reading and typing of these conversations as well as switching between written and verbal communication. While others prefer to take their time to think and respond slowly. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call is “style grouping.”
3) A Head Start: It occurred to me that some students would benefit from a head start on reading and getting in a first comment in the discussion. This way they could have a few minutes to think about how they would solve the problem and get their first steps down in writing before the rest of the group chipped in.
I teach a lot of lessons on how to collaborate during the school year. That doesn’t stop when my kids get online to interact with each other. It’s a learning curve for all of us. It’s my hope that by applying these three strategies ALL of my students will get an opportunity to become comfortable collaborating in online discussions.