Students work in groups. Every day. No matter what.
They start every class period by comparing homework solutions and methods. There is an opener on the board (or screen, if the projector is working) which directs their conversations to specific parts of the assignment. As I walk around checking homework, I listen to the conversations, ask a question or two, and move onto the next group.
At the beginning of the year, when a student would ask me a question, I would reply, “I don’t know. Did you ask your group?” and move on. It was very, very difficult to to that, but I knew if I didn’t start them off working effectively in groups I’d never get them there.
After the small group discussions, we have a whole class discussion. Here is where we clear up any misconceptions I overheard at the start of class (or questions that students asked me in small groups – I’m not ignoring them). The way I do this is by asking questions and having students share their work. I try not to ask yes or no questions. I don’t answer my own questions. I don’t immediately rephrase my question. If no one answers, I wait.
So far the longest I’ve had to wait is about 4 minutes. They’ve learned they aren’t going to be let off of the hook if they don’t know. I even told one student that he had until the next day to answer the question. You know what? He came back the next day with the answer and was really proud of himself.
Some of my standard questions include:
If we pulled a person in off the street, would they be convinced by your solution?
How does your method compare with his/hers?
How do you know you’re right?
Can you think of another method that would give you the same result?
On what part of the problem are you stuck?
What do you know about the problem?
There are days when it seems like the same three or four students are answering all of the questions. So, when that happens I tell them that they aren’t allowed to answer any questions – they are only allowed to ask questions of other students.
Then there are days in my first period class when no one wants to answer any questions – so I pull out the popsicle sticks.
These techniques are working really well in my freshmen classes. The seniors? Not so much. I’m finding it more difficult to have effective discussions with them for a variety of reasons. I feel like I’m a much better teacher with the freshmen. I don’t know if it is the curriculum, the time of day, or simply that I’m better with the freshmen.