Making Dream Group Work an Everyday Reality

By Yekaterina Milvidskaia and Daisy Sharrock
February 6, 2019

Ask math teachers what their ideal classroom looks and sounds like, and they will probably tell you about that one magical unicorn lesson where students worked collaboratively in groups and engaged in authentic mathematical debates that led to deeper learning for all. What is so special about those elusive lessons where group work…well, worked? And how can we create more of them?

Well designed and expertly implemented group work can bolster student engagement, boost achievement, and promote a whole host of positive psychosocial outcomes like belonging, help-seeking, and empathy. Done poorly, however, group work can exacerbate existing status issues between students and perpetuate unequal participation. The thing is, none of us is born knowing how to act in groups, much less design group learning activities in which all members flourish. You may have noticed that as humans, we do not always value each other’s ideas right away. In the absence of a culture of listening to each other’s thinking, some group members may dominate and take over group work, causing other students to lose access to meaningful learning opportunities, or even shut down or disengage. Designing group work that provides all students with the opportunity to access rigorous content can be challenging, but it is also critical to the growth of each and every student. 

There are significant benefits to establishing a positive group work culture in the classroom. When students learn to work well together they push each other’s thinking, hold each other accountable for learning, and build on each other’s ideas. With specific classroom structures, strategic and repeated messaging, and sufficient time for students to fail and grow, they can and will develop robust group work skills that will serve them long after they graduate.

To help educators create learning environments where group activities are as rigorous as they are inspiring, collaborative, and equitable, we’ve curated a set of tasks and resources that demonstrate how the “unicorn lesson” can be an everyday experience for teachers and students alike.            

1. Co-develop group work norms with students.

Everyone knows what bad group work feels like. And everyone has had experiences where a group worked well together. Gavin and Aurmon, two high school math teachers, created a lesson where students unpack a video of not-so-great group work and then brainstorm norms that they want to use for their own group work throughout the year. Creating norms together is a great way to build a strong foundation for a collaborative learning culture in any classroom. 

2. Infuse group roles into your classroom routines. 

Group roles are another powerful structure for ensuring equitable participation in group work. They provide each student with a role to play—the team captain, the coach, the skeptic, the accountability manager—and role-related responsibilities and ‘sound bites’. For example, the skeptic, whose job is to push students to justify their ideas could ask, “Can you explain why…?” And the coach, whose job is to include everyone in the conversation, can invite group members into the conversation by asking, “What do you suggest we do next?” These roles set up students as intellectually equal and support them in engaging productively and learning from one another. Though students (and teachers!) may feel awkward using them at first, once they are integrated students report that they significantly deepen the level of mathematical discussion during group work, especially when the skeptic role is properly supported.

This video provides an overview of group roles including footage of students using them to prepare to present their thinking to the whole class. Group roles are most effective when they are used consistently and thoroughly integrated into the class routines (and when teachers circulate to monitor for and intervene whenever status differences warp student interactions). 

Key tips for integrating group roles into your classroom include:

  • Habits take time to form. Commit to integrating group roles for a year. If it doesn’t work at first don’t give up! 
  • Mix it up! Allow students to choose their roles based on their strength or something they need to work on; assign roles with purpose (“Today I am choosing a role for you that I think is your strength or something you need work on.”), or make it random (“The person with the longest hair will be team captain today.”).
  • Integrate roles into how you do things.  When checking in with groups refer to students by their role – e.g., “Coach, can you give me an update on your team,” or, “Skeptic, is your team ready to be skepticized?” 

  • Use problems that necessitate the need for a specific role. If the problem has no use for the team captain, then don’t use it. For example this pyramid problem  (see slides 26-32) would be a great one to use with introducing the team captain role as it necessitates the use of mathematical thinking tools such color and snap cubes that the team captain can retrieve for their group. Or there’s this points and regions problem which provides opportunities for the skeptic to step up as the patterns evolve! 
  • Show students that you value group roles and they will too. If you are passive about using norms and roles, they will be passive about them too. Reinforce using group roles through participation quizzes, accountability quizzes, and one-on-one feedback.

3. Use participation quizzes to reinforce good group work. 

One of the ways to demonstrate to students that you value positive and productive group work is to use a participation quiz to reinforce group work norms & roles. The purpose of a participation quiz is to focus and assess students’ group work behaviors while they work on a rich math task. It is important during a participation quiz to focus on publicly recognizing positive group work behaviors and areas of growth and not to assess the mathematics.

During a participation quiz it is best to circulate around the room to note down behaviors of each group. This is not the time to interact with the students, but rather just observe and listen. The key to this strategy is to leave enough time at the end of class to publicly share observations with the class. For example, “I appreciated how the skeptic at table 3 asked several questions that helped the group gain a key insight.” 

4. Use accountability quizzes to hold students accountable for each other’s learning.

In order for students to learn effectively in groups, they need to listen and understand the thinking of their group members. Accountability quizzes are a useful way to determine if all group members are engaged in learning. 

During an accountability quiz the teacher stops by a group during the explore phase of a lesson and asks a random (or not-so-random) student to share the group’s thinking so far, or to answer a ‘why?‘ question. Some teachers spin a pencil to determine who will answer their question, others shuffle group roles behind their back to select a student. If the selected student is unable to respond to the posed question with sufficient evidence, then the group has not passed the accountability quiz yet. It is important to emphasize that it’s the group that has not passed, not the individual student. If the student is lacking in their explanation, then the teacher can say, “It looks like this team needs more time to discuss this. Accountability manager, please raise your hand when your team is ready to re-try answering this question.”

It is important to then give the team time to try again. This process might repeat several times and students learn several important lessons:

  1. The expectation is that they need to discuss the “hows” and “whys” of the problem, not just come up with an answer.
  2. They should be helping each other and everyone is responsible for each other’s learning (the emphasis is on teamwork)!
  3. The students experience having to justify their reasoning to a skeptic (modeled by the teacher), a habit we hope students develop themselves.
  4. When students see a perceived “higher-achieving” student struggle in their explanation, it normalizes struggle and levels the playing field.

Implementing these strategies consistently and with purpose will help you and your students enjoy more and more “unicorn” lessons as the year progresses. Group work magic takes time to build. However, with the right structures and teacher support, all students have the capacity to carry out productive mathematical conversions, hold each other accountable for their learning, and recognize each other’s mathematical brilliance. 

For more student-centered math practices from the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, visit, and check out Mathematical Agency Improvement Community change package.

Authors Yekaterina Milvidskaia and Daisy Sharrock, of High Tech High Graduate School of Education, are members of a Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative-sponsored research team that is currently leading the study Leveraging the Power of Improvement Networks to Spread Lesson Study. 

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