Specifics before Strategies

In this blog post, we’ll explore how to get specific with math or non-math classroom issues before we develop strategies. We’ll also see an example of how to build a rubric from the ground up.

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“My kids just won’t work together.”

This (or something like it) is a common complaint I hear during professional development as I encourage teachers to facilitate rich tasks via small student groups. It’s an understandable pushback and also an unhelpful one. If you’re struggling with an issue in the classroom – whether it be groupwork, late work, or anything – the first step is to Get Specific.

Let’s review the opening statement with some questions and commentary:

My kids…” Which kids? All of them? Some of them? Nelson Muntz? How many and which kids are we talking about? Is there a commonality between these students? 

“…won’t…” What do you mean by “won’t”? They don’t want to? They don’t know how? What are they doing instead of working together? 

“…work together.” What does it mean to “work together?” Does it mean to check each other’s work? Discuss a problem before they move on to the next? What structures have you provided to help them work together? What prompts, aside from “work together” have you provided to help students know what it means to work together?

I provide this example to demonstrate how many of us are vague with our comments, when what we need is specificity. We can’t get better when the issue is vague and nebulous.

Sticking with the “work together” situation… this is a common issue among students (and adults). I have two children who hate groupwork more than anything in the world. It’s natural to want to work individually. Some of us are even wired that way. I have a difficult time collaborating with peers far beyond “you do this, I’ll do that.” So let’s drill down.

What are the specific things you want students to do while working together?

  • Do you want students to offer words of encouragement?
  • Do you want students to check the answer with their peers before the move to the next problem?
  • Do you want everyone in the group to share an idea?
  • Do you want students to divvy up the work?

If any of these are the case, say so and don’t just say “work together.”

(***Rubric sense starts tingling***) 

In fact, let’s create a small rubric for this. 

Rubric Example

Let’s take the question around checking answers with their peers before moving to the next problem. 

What is the behavior your want? Well, we just answered that in the previous sentence. Let’s make that the PROFICIENT column. 

What is the current state of students? Let’s say students currently are working entirely individually such that they aren’t checking each other at all. That’s no good. Let’s put that in the far left column.

Now, what would be a stretch goal for students? What would it look like if students were really, really checking in on each other? Maybe: Checks with peers and makes sure everyone understands before proceeding.

And now to fill in the gap: what’s the midpoint between “doesn’t check” and “checks”? I’ll toss in the modifier “occasionally” but I’m guessing the more seasoned rubric developers may have better ideas. “Occasionally” isn’t terribly descriptive. Maybe we should be specific with language like “once or twice.” But that’s what I got and we’re in the middle of a PD session right now. 

Now we have a small rubric on Corroborates Solutions With Peers which is an aspect of collaboration (not the whole thing). We can even use it throughout the year – every time we work on a problem set as a class. We can get better at it. We can improve the rubric as well (let’s go ahead and change it to “once or twice” and “all”).

Because we were able to get specific about the behavior we’re trying to assess, we can now communicate and scaffold towards it. You’ll be able to document with some reliability how many students are at what specific level of this specific aspect of collaboration. I’ll admit: I haven’t offered any strategies in this blog post to treat the initial issue around students working together. But once we have specifics – and rubrics are a great way to get specifics – we can start addressing the problem areas and celebrate the bright spots.

I’d encourage you to check out some of New Tech Networks rubrics around Collaboration, Agency, and Communication for other (better) exemplars. 

To wrap up this with a meta-comment, I’m realizing more and more that I don’t often know what the second step is, but the first is to understand.

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