Today, I am trading blogs with Laura Candler of Corkboard Connections! You can read her insightful post about cooperative math problem solving right here and then hop on over to Corkboard Connections to read my post about task cards.
Cooperative learning can transform a classroom, but it does take a bit of trial and error to be successful. When I was first trained, I used cooperative learning every day, in every subject, and my students and I were having a terrific time! But then came the big state test! Oops! I discovered that as a result of working together all the time, my students lacked confidence in their ability to work on their own. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and I had to step back and reevaluate my teaching methods.
I realized that the missing piece of the puzzle was providing time for students to work alone before working with a partner. This step was especially critical in math, because the process of struggling with a problem and trying different strategies can lead to new insights and understandings. If we ask students to immediately turn and talk to a partner, we’re depriving them of the chance to figure it out on their own.
To address this need, I developed the Cooperative Problem Solving (CPS) strategy, which has four important steps. If you use CPS more than once on a given day, then it occurs in a cycle.
Steps of Cooperative Problem Solving
- Teacher Presents the Problem: Display a math problem on the board, hand out a worksheet, or ask students to turn to a problem in the math book. Read the problem aloud or ask them to read it silently. You’ll find free Daily Math Puzzler worksheets on my Problem Solving page that would work well for this activity. Have students begin with the first problem on the worksheet.
- Students Work Alone: Ask students to work the problem alone, preferably on dry erase boards so they can easily erase their work and try different strategies. They turn their boards face down when they have a preliminary answer or you tell them that time is up.
- Students Work Together: Students compare and discuss answers with a partner or with a team. I generally prefer partner work in math, but if the problem is really challenging, then I allow the entire team to talk it over and work it out together. If students realize that their answer was wrong, they may change it, but they must show the work to go with their new solution. They don’t all have to agree, but each person should be prepared to explain his or her answer.
- Class Discusses Solutions: Reveal the answer to the class and call on students to share how they solved the problem. Instead of focusing on a single “right” way, challenge your class to come up with as many ways to solve it as possible. Allow different students to hold up their dry erase boards or place them under a document camera as they explain their solutions. If students are required to record an answer in a journal or on a worksheet, allow time to do this now, without talking to anyone.
- Repeat steps 1-4: If time allows, complete the entire sequence with another math word problem.
Even if your students record the answers on a worksheet, the answers are not a true assessment of their skills. You still need to assign independent math problems on a regular basis. Doing so holds students accountable, not only for completing the work but also for learning the skill. For more problem solving strategies and information, read my blog post on this topic on Corkboard Connections. You’ll find a link there to a free webinar on Daily Math Problem Solving.
Do you use cooperative learning in your math class? What are your favorite strategies? Do you think it’s possible to do too much cooperative learning? I’d love to hear your thoughts!