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The Joys of (Some) Noise

Learning through discussion and debate in student collaboration modalities

Students often learn and retain knowledge best when they talk through concepts and problem-solving strategies. Effective collaboration skills are also predictive of college success, and an important part of middle school development. As students move beyond middle and high school and into college and the workplace, they are no longer expected just to know the right answer but to be able to explain their thinking and work with others to come up with answers.

We’ve made collaborative student discussion, debate, projects, and problem solving foundational components of Teach to One: Math. Students engage with mathematical concepts in a variety of different ways, which we call instructional modalities. Instructional modalities like small group collaboration, peer-to-peer, and multi-day “tasks” encourage students to discuss their thinking, adding their own perspective and approaches to solving problems. For students (and for teachers) who are new to our model, adapting to this active learning approach can require special attention.

Facilitating productive discussions and constructive debate

Student collaboration may help students learn and retain knowledge.
In the 2012-13 school year, the math team at William C. McGinnis Middle School in Perth Amboy, New Jersey focused on how they could better facilitate collaborative modalities to help students deepen their learning. Led by principal Dr. Myrna Garcia and instructional leader Marie Bermudez, and with the support of New Classrooms’ instructional coaching staff, the math team devoted professional learning time to discussing and planning strategies to help facilitate discussions among students in order to improve their conceptual understanding.

“We focus on how to get that deeper understanding and help our students to write and talk more math,” said Marie Bermudez. “We’re strengthening our skills in facilitating the modalities that support that.”

Collaborative instructional modalities are not always easy for teachers to facilitate. Many teachers have spent years developing strategies to limit unproductive noise in the classroom. Guiding students to take a position and argue for that position (even when they are incorrect) takes practice and special attention. Walking into a loud classroom is often viewed as a sign of failed classroom management, rather than a step in the right direction for more engaged learning. Yet, intentionally creating opportunities for discussion and debate can help students develop recognition of the pleasure and importance of intellectual exploration.

The McGinnis math team uses their weekly common planning time to share best instructional practices when facilitating collaborative modalities. Some of the strategies to emerge are simple, but effective, like sentence prompts for students to help facilitate discussion (e.g., “I like your idea and I think that…”, “I disagree with what you’re saying because…”).

Including English Language Learners in the conversation

Learning through discussion, debate, and collaboration
In a school where an estimated 60% of students live in primarily Spanish-speaking homes, teachers have also taken steps to ensure that English Language Learners can participate in engaged discussions about mathematics with their peers. When possible, an ESL or bilingual teacher is on hand and “word walls” with the Spanish language equivalents of math terms ensure that English Language Learners don’t have to struggle to come up with the right word to express a mathematical concept.

More than 1,000 students participate in Teach to One at McGinnis. At the end of their first year partnering with New Classrooms, the math team felt good about how their efforts to maximize opportunities for deep discussion among students could lead to greater student achievement. “My vision is that we address the needs of each and every child,” said Dr. Garcia. “My vision is that by the time they get to the eighth grade they can be caught up and ready for high school.”

Discussion, debate, and student collaboration are helping Dr. Garcia’s team realize that vision.

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