When Two Heads Are Better Than One

  • When Two Heads Are Better Than One

    By Jamie Walker, posted April 24, 2017 —

    Hearing students whine about math being hard is akin to hearing nails on a chalkboard. Because it drove me crazy, I decided to head it off.

    At the beginning of the school year, we have a little conversation about how math is hard. I start by acknowledging my students’ feelings. “Math is hard. I get it. I found math to be challenging in school.” I can see the confusion on their faces as they realize that their teacher just said that math was challenging for her. However, I follow it up with an explanation. “It was that challenge that made it so great. You know that feeling when you finally get something that was hard, that wonderful aha! moment? I love that feeling, and that is why I fell in love with math. I love a good challenge, but I also know that I can’t always do it alone. In here when things get hard, we work together to find answers, and we help each other learn.” In a society that values the individual, this can be a difficult concept to get across to students. It is my job to help my students learn to value collaboration.

    Collaboration is extremely beneficial. Through collaboration, students are introduced to another valuable resource: their friends. Together, students can learn from one another and deepen their understanding. Collaborative learning values a good argument. It allows students to test their theories, validate their conclusions, and critique the reasoning of others. However, collaboration is a skill that must be learned. In this post, I will discuss some strategies for encouraging productive collaboration.

    How is your classroom set up? If you wish to promote discussions and collaborative learning, your classroom set up should lend itself to this. Think about what type of collaboration you would like to promote. If you prefer whole-class discussions, perhaps it would be best to shape the classroom into a giant U. This gives all students an equal seat at the table. If you use such partnering strategies as “think, pair, share,” pushing desks into groups of two will facilitate partner discussions.

    Mixed-ability pairing is also a useful strategy. Research shows that both high-achieving and low-achieving students benefit from peer tutoring, but only if the abilities are not too far apart. If the gap between students is too large, it can result in frustration for one or both. It can also result in one student just giving the other the answer. This situation requires closely monitoring students; step in to help guide discussions when necessary. Remind them not to simply answer for the other student, but to help the other student find the answer. Model this behavior, and have them try it.

    Collaboration can truly challenge your students. If the activity is just a little beyond their skill set, the students will need the assistance of their group to complete the task. This sets the stage for valuable discussions. Inevitably, one group will be uncomfortable with this format and seek out guidance from me. Rather than doing a mini-lecture, I ask guided questions to help students formulate a theory. Once they have a theory, let the group critique the theory or further justify it.

    When working with groups, it helps to give the students well-defined roles within the grouping to promote accountability and equality. I usually place one student in charge who is responsible for making sure that everyone is working at the same pace and that no one is falling behind. It is also useful to have one person make sure that everyone has been given a chance to speak. This will facilitate more balanced discussions and fair arguments.

    In my posts, I have discussed the value of a good argument in a math class. To have a proper discussion, there must be collaboration. Although a little competition can be a good thing, I prefer a classroom in which students are working together to overcome a challenge. Anything worth achieving in life will be challenging. I want my students to not only build resources so that they become resilient when faced with a challenge but also actively seek out challenges in school and in life.


    Jamie Walker, walker.jamielynn@gmail.com, is a mathematics teacher at Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox, Illinois, where she teaches algebra 1 and geometry in a 1:1 environment. She shares literacy strategies on her webpage http://mathematicsplusreading.weebly.com/ and tweets from @walkerjamielynn. Walker has a passion for increasing literacy in mathematics and works to collaborate and share on the Twittersphere. 

    Leave Comment

    Please Log In to Comment

    All Comments

    Alex Juvion - 12/21/2018 3:35:49 AM

    Yes, many students have plenty of whines about math being hard is parallel to hearing nails on a chalkboard and it was nice to know that you think about how math is hard for students and talked and introduced valuable resources to make easy math sums & terms. The university students who are also struggling in math and also taking cheap dissertation writing service from the assignment writers at Quality Assignment, this discussion on collaborative learning and math resources find helpful.

    Anna Wiener - 12/9/2018 7:06:29 PM

    I love how you added in the part where you tell your students that you struggle thorugh the math sometimes too. It shows the students that you are human and math can be challenging, but that's what makes it so enjoyable! Also, collaboration in a math classroom is key, especially in a middle school setting. The students are able to talk to one another about how to solve the problems and get a deeper understanding of the content. Through this collaboration, the students are able to get another perspective and they might take away something that they might not have gotten from the teacher. 

    Claudia Lay - 12/3/2018 6:10:06 PM

    One huge stereotype that math has is that its hard and everyone hates it, and as a math teacher who loves math it is one of the major things that I keep in mind while lesson planning because I need to find way to get students engaged. This is one great way to do that! Encouraging students to collaborate in the math classroom will motivate and engage adolescents, because they are social beings and just need to talk sometimes and when they talk to others about their work, they can learn from each other and deepen their understanding. When students obtain a deeper understanding of a topic, they are going to be more engaged in that topic because they are more confident about the topic.

    Harry Waters - 6/8/2018 7:05:56 AM

    I completely agree with this however there are certain disadvantages as mentioned on superior papers review and you should take those into consideration as well.

    Dawn Griffith - 4/29/2018 3:25:16 PM

    I absolutely love this post! I'm glad someone else who loves math as much as I do thinks of it as hard and challenging. I'm also glad that you mentioned "two heads are better than one". Sometimes, I only know of one way to explain something, which also means I can only learn the information in that one way. Having someone else, especially a peer, explain the same content to me, but in a different way, can be very beneficial to the students. Peer interaction is important for middle school students, so I'm glad that you look at collaboration as a useful strategy. Students tend to listen and comprehend information more easily when the information is coming from friends or peers. 

    Loryn Gavula - 4/20/2018 1:10:45 PM

    I relate to this post so much! I definietly think math is hard, but it is the echallenge and that feeling you get when you  solve the difficult problem that make Math amazing. I think it is important for students to know that I, the teacher, also struggle with math sometimes and they need to know that that's okay. I also completely agree with the point being made about collaboration. Students learn best when they hear it from frineds and 2. they have the chance to teach it to their friends. Collaboration is the perfect way to implement this idea. 

    Daria Johnson - 5/15/2017 4:45:08 PM

    Hi Jamie,

    I agree with you about collaborating in your class.  I recently took over a class, in the middle of the school year.  I love to do group assignments because I feel that students learn better from one another.  The first time I did a group assignment, it was horable.  The students just talked about personal things and most of the students just copied off of each other.  The next time I was smarter.  I group the students myself.  I also assigned a team leader.  That leader was in charge of material, pace, and noise level.  At the end of class, in order for the group to get bonus points.  I would pick a student from each group to come up to the board to answer one of the math problems with out their team.  I could tell which team taught each of their player how to solve the problem and which team or person that did not teach or learn the problems.  The next time we did group work the collaboration was great and each kid did their part for the team.