Fires in the Mind

Those who know, teach!

What would it take to invest students deeply in helping each other really understand the material? After reading Dan Pink’s post on “flipping homework” (described here), one algebra teacher posted a fascinating comment describing his out-of-the-box approach.

Every class day, this teacher gives a one-problem quiz. Afterward, the teacher readies those students who correctly solved the problem to help those who didn’t solve it, on the board.

Next, each student who still didn’t solve it gets help from those who solved it (either on the quiz or on the board) until all students understand the problem.

Exams are taken by only one student of the teacher’s choice. All students get the grade attained by that student.

The result? “Learning and exam preparation become a group effort, and all win or lose together,” wrote this teacher, identified in the comments only as Durfa.

I want to know more about this strategy of coaching collaboration and academic material at the same time! Do you know someone who has tried it, in any subject? How did it work out? Send in your example, and I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind. Those who know, teach!


7 Responses to “Those who know, teach!”

  1. Ren St. says:

    I found this approach fascinating. In a math or science context it does unnerve me a bit, but the reality in the working world is that there is often a single person who is pushed to the front and takes responsibility for everyone on their team. Why not expose students to it and increase collaboration?

    I like this approach in a humanities setting and can see myself using it in my future classrooms. As a student teacher, my current ninth grade world literature classes would benefit from this sort of instruction in obtaining background information on the texts before we read it. Another way I can use it now is on group essays where each person contributes a thought and then in groups of 3-4 students flesh out an essay about the topic.

    The biggest problem I have with this approach is that it requires a close-knit classroom. I feel that it would be beneficial to include tips on fostering this sort of environment so that students don’t intentionally block others or where a student who does poorly is ostracized for failing the class. Are there any approaches that the contributor uses to reduce social problems with this type of activity?

  2. Pete C. says:

    I find this idea interesting…and a little upsetting. As a future teacher, I could not see implementing such an approach in a physics or math classroom. While what Ren said is true, that often times the workplace does push one member of a group to the forefront to publish results, college comes before the workplace in most cases.

    Groups are not admitted to college, but individuals are. While I recognize this activity as probably a small part of the grade, I would expect many college-bound students to balk at the fact that their coveted GPA could be brought down if some student who doesn’t know/doesn’t care is asked to present the answer. In the classroom where I student teach, I have seen this happening to a lesser extent on lab work. The more ambitious kids are upset when someone is forced to join their group that will interfere with the higher grade they are hoping to achieve. I think that lower-achieving student might also be a bit embarrassed when they get the wrong answer for the group.

    On page 127 of the book it is discussed that topics should be delved into on a deeper level as opposed to covering a wider range more superficially. I can see the rationale behind this, and I do think that this group activity is a good way to reach a deeper level if students are forced to come to a shared understanding, just so long as the impact on their grade is not too high.

  3. john bohannon says:

    I think this is an intriguing idea. It reminds me of the exercise 1-2-4 presented by Canady and Rettig (Teaching In The Block, 1996). The idea is the same: An individual prepares an answer to a question, then shares with a partner. They compare answers (they don’t have to agree) and then pair with another duo. The quartets work to consensus and then one student from one group is picked by the teacher to present the group’s answer for comment by the rest of the class. I have used this successfully many times. I don’t see why the groups could not continue to double in size until the whole class was working to reach an answer.

    Perhaps what seems bothersome is the idea of grades. I found that this type of exercise worked best when the students were simply trying to learn (material as well as a process of consensus building) and not to pad their college transcripts! Perhaps the teacher should consider what is being assessed here: getting the “right” answer, or learning to work effectively in groups, or even learning a method of group problem solving. I think the exercise is effective for the latter two goals, but probably not for the first. One way to do assessment is to have each student write a comment about his/her own contribution to the process, or even assess someone else’s contribution. Finally, one way to help insure focus is to announce from the start that some guest adults — such as a parent volunteer, the principal, or another teacher — will come to hear the final solution. If there is going to be a grade associated with the presentation of the answer, then the teacher has to allow time for all the students to rehearse until the class is satisfied that everyone is ready.

  4. Bill R says:

    I think John Bohannon hits the nail on the head when he points out that a teacher must carefully consider what the learning goal is for the students with such an exercise. There’s a lot of merit in giving students first-hand experience in working collaboratively and learning from their peers. This is an area where many top-performing high school students struggle in college. They carry with them their solo study habits from high school and when faced with difficult new material in college they lack the metacognitive knowledge to seek out their peers as a learning resource. Learning does not need to be a lonely experience. The earlier on we let students experience the value of peer-to-peer learning, the better.

  5. Katie C says:

    I am currently placed in an urban school district where over 50 percent of our students live below the poverty line. Yet, you’d never know because the students are so vibrant, so full of life and energy. Still, more often than not, that energy is not focused on anything academic, and I think that so greatly relates to what you wrote about in Chapter 3 of Fires in the Mind, the section called “It’s Worth the Trouble.” Making students’ work authentic and relevant to an audience beyond the teacher or classroom has so much potential to increase student engagement. When students do a worksheet in the classroom, only the teacher reads it. What’s the point? Yet when other students or adults or peers read work, it makes it seem so much more purposeful. When we write to an audience outside of our teacher, we work harder because we value the opinion (especially if it’s that of an expert) of a different audience.

    In my placement classroom, my mentor teacher and I were struggling to teach our students about food webs and energy flow in ecosystems. My mentor taught the concepts one day, then I reviewed them the next, yet the students’ work didn’t show comprehension or much effort. So my mentor decided to make the students more accountable and help them peer-build toward understanding. The students worked together in small groups of three to teach each other the material. My mentor explained that we would be walking around and checking for everyone’s complete understanding (aka, no copying or just telling each other the answers). There was a complete change over the classroom. Once students were accountable for their work, and had to work together and demonstrate knowledge to one another, the work quality and comprehension increased greatly. Perhaps the next step for accountability would have been to create a public space online and share with another high school science classroom. As I begin to incorporate some of the ideas from Fires in the Mind into my own teaching, I hope to see improvements on student motivation like the one I saw in my placement!

  6. Dan J. says:

    I very much like the idea of group cooperative teaching and having accountability. But I agree with Pete that I can’t see using the grading portion in an actual classroom. There is too much at stake that students wouldn’t feel comfortable letting one student make or break everyone’s grade. Students need to have the feeling that they are in control of their own grade. By letting one student determine everyone’s grade it makes the students give up too much control. While this method may work in small groups it doesn’t work as well with more people because of the diversity in the ability that grows with larger groups. For instance, I am a student teacher that helps out in a lower level math class. Within this class I see a large span of abilities ranging from straight A students to those who fail. Since we work in groups a lot, many of the students help each other out. But there will always be students who understand the material better than others, and some who barely understand it at all. I can think of a couple of students who fall into the category of not completely understanding how everything works. Would it be fair to the students who really know the material for me to grade them based on the students who don’t understand every aspect of the subject but know the basics? And if I only test for the basics then I will never know if they have a deeper understanding. I also can’t just always pick the students who understand. I will eventually have to pick the students who are the worse students.

    While I like the idea of cooperative learning with shared responsibility/accountability, I don’t think that the assessment portion works as well. Maybe allowing each group to take the test instead of making one person do it. That way each person in the group has a say on the outcome of the test.

  7. Stephanie G says:

    While I am currently a student teacher and have never used this approach in my (English) classroom, I will say that I remember this approach being done once in my high school physics class. My teacher save the entire class a difficult problem and said that at the end of class, he would randomly choose one person from the class to go to the board and do the problem. If the person did every step of the problem correctly, the entire class received a set amount of extra credit points.

    This exercise was unnerving for a lot of people, particularly those who didn’t care much for sharing their ideas with others. It did, however, encourage everybody to ask questions to one another about the set-up of the problem and concepts we learned about in class. I noticed a lot of students who would otherwise sit at the back of the class and continue to not understand the material were actively seeking other students out in order to ask questions. Basically, this method did keep literally the entire class engaged with the material.

    Here is the downfall: There is a lot of social pressure on the kid who is chosen to do the problem at the end. If he makes a single mistake, the entire class knows, and not only is he embarrassed in front of his classmates, but they also despise him for costing them extra credit points. These social pressures would undoubtedly lead kids to tense up when they must prove to the teacher that they know the answer, which may, in turn, lead them into messing up part of the problem and therefore getting it incorrect. In my class, the boy who was randomly chosen to do the complicated physics problem did ultimately end up getting the correct answer; however, he messed up a couple steps along the way. Thankfully, our teacher was forgiving, since the boy ended up with the correct answer and 95% of the correct steps.

    I say if this teaching method is to work, teachers need to be a little bit forgiving to the student who is chosen at random to present the material for them. They need to be mindful that this teaching method puts a lot of social pressure on the kid and could potentially have long-term effects on the kid’s relationship with his or her classmates. Therefore, if an answer is “mostly” correct, give the student the points, but be sure to specifically explain to the student what he missed. Or at least allow partial credit. A negative experience like being embarrassed in front of the entire class can potentially turn kids off from the subject matter itself.

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