Ask One: An Easy Strategy to Instantly Elevate Your Group Work

Guest post by Jen from Beyond Traditional Math

I spent a ton of time avoiding group work in my early years of teaching. There were many reasons, but the main one was that I felt that students weren’t accountable. I’d be walking around and found them off task, disengaged, sitting back with their arms crossed, one or two would take over all of the talking… I felt that it was not a good use of my instructional time.

I began to work on those behaviors little by little by finding group work strategies. I knew the importance of student talk, so I was committed to the task. After trying different approaches, I developed a strategy that has become my most favorite by far.

I call the strategy “Ask One,” and you’ll see why after you read how it works. It is by far and away the easiest and the most effective way I’ve found to elevate group work.

What you do is quite simple. You set up all your group work routines and get to know your students. You make sure that your classroom culture is one of kindness so that group work feels safe. Once you are seeing patterns like disengagement or struggle with specific students, rearrange your class into groups where you can place one of these students in each group.

Then choose an activity that is engaging and difficult. I like Reasoning Puzzles because they really require students to dig in. This is what I like to say to the students before we begin: “I’m going to come around and ask your group to explain your thinking.

The thing is, only one of you will be allowed to do the explaining, and I’m going to choose that person. The rest of you won’t be able to say a word to me. You won’t know who it is until I come to your group. If that person is having trouble explaining the work of the group, I’ll let you all continue to work and come back and check.”

Then, you watch your groups as they begin the activity. You’ll see who is struggling or who might be disengaged. When you ask that student to explain, they may not be able to fully explain everything.

That’s when you start asking questions. Don’t let the other group mates jump in to explain! Tell them you’ll come back and that you expect the other group mates to help them understand the problem.

As you leave, you’ll see behaviors where the group mates just try to tell them what to say. You’ll get around that by asking more questions to see if they understand conceptually. And you keep coming back… and you keep coming back…

I’ve done this dozens of times, and every single time the student that I’ve chosen is able to come to an understanding with the help of the group. The group mates that may have easily gotten an answer have to explain in many ways, and because of this they understand the concept a bit deeper themselves!

If I noticed that the student I questioned was getting anxious, I would  pull back and ask others to do the explaining. If that happened, it also would tell me that I definitely need to do some deep reteaching.

If you’d like to try out this strategy, you can download my free Reasoning Puzzles Sampler Set from my TpT store. Now you can see why “Ask One” is one of my favorite strategies for increasing engagement in math. It will instantly elevate your group work and make it more effective!

Jen is a math instructional coach and interventionist with 10 years of experience teaching elementary students. Her passion is teaching math with a focus on conceptual knowledge through rigorous problem solving. You can find more teaching tips and resources (and hear about how much she has learned from her mistakes) at her blog: Beyond Traditional Math. You can also connect with her on Pinterest, TpT, Twitter, and Facebook.