A few months ago I was asked by a school district to develop a pre-workshop workshop (yes, you heard right!) for 100 (!) 4th and 5th graders from six different elementary schools. I was brought in to design a pre-contest project that would focus on the process of collaborating in a making setting. This, in turn, would set the scene for an afternoon of collaborative Rube Goldberg Machine design and testing.
I knew exactly what I would do! For the most part, math activities and building projects are either on the page or explored with the hands. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I knew from my work developing and fine tuning Math in Your Feet that a scaled up, whole-body activity provides some mighty opportunies for talking, negotiating, learning, and working together.
We divided the kids, who, for the most part, were meeting their group members for the first time, into 20 groups of five. Each of the 10 adult chaperones were tasked with keeping tabs on two groups and providing ocassional check-ins. Once the kids were organized, I gave them a challenge:
Using the newspaper rolls and blue tape, work together with your group to build a structure that can 1) stand up independently of human support and 2) be big enough to hold at least one or two group members, either sitting or standing inside the structure.
During the workshop I scheduled three formal moments for the groups to pause their activity and reflect with their teammates about aspects of their communication and the building process. The lesson plan has all the details.
As part of my planning I decided that if we were going to do a project with this many kids I really wanted to have a detailed understanding of what they thought about the process. I knew that the workshop itself would go well enough because I’ve done this before at a smaller scale. However, I wanted their final activity of the build to be focused on personal written reflection. I wanted to gauge the overall dynamics and, hopefully, get some “data” on what nine and ten year olds might take away from a workshop that is intentionally focused on collaborative learning and making at the same time.
I was not disappointed! Below you’ll find their responses to three reflection prompts. The first reflection prompt was so rich I decided to break it into three parts. Responses to the final two reflection prompts follow after.
A NOTE ON CHANGING SCALE
Kids are used to building with their hands. Legos, Kinex, marble mazes, etc. provide ample opportunity for literally building spatial reasoning which is the foundation of mathematical thinking. The newspaper rolls are one large sheet of newspaper rolled on the diagonal and can create a potent creative constraint requiring inginuity and collaboration. Their reflections, below, will give you a good sense of this.
What did you notice about the building process? [3 Sections]
NOTICING THE BUILD PROCESS
- I noticed in the building process that the structure was too short for Livie to fit in
- I noticed we did not build the structure like we said we would
- I noticed that the newspaper rolls wouldn’t stand up still [by themselves]
- We used a lot of tape and used 25 newspaper rolls
- The building process took a while but it didn’t take forever
- [I noticed] that it is pretty hard to build something big
- It was difficulat to keep the newspaper from falling down
- We added as we built so we could fit more people [into the structure]
- I noticed it was in stages
- Our ideas got different throughout the building time
- I noticed that one side wouldn’t stay up until we made the other sides
- That a cube won’t just hold by itself
- That it wouldn’t stand at first but then when we put more newpaper rolls and tape it finally stood up without us holding it
- The plan changed a lot throughtout the process
- It was very tilty and frustrating
- I noticed that the project isn’t as easy as you think
- It was frustrating, and hard to do
- It was challenging but fun
- Pretty hard until the end
- We just added as we went
- I saw that people did what they wanted, not what we said/suggested. It just went right over their heads.
- We were a quiet group and we started talking near the end
- It was bad because they kinda ignored me
- I noticed that communicating was a HUGE step of this process
- It was fun!
- If teamwork worked and everybody was not goofing around our tower would have worked and it would have been a lot easier
- I noticed that it was fast, fun, cool and nobody got mad, and I made friends
- That having a group is very helpful
- I noticed certain people helping, giving ideas, saving the thing that we were building [from falling down] and making new friends.
- It was challenging and exciting
- We made a teepee structure
- I noticed that the building process was hard and easy depending on what we were doing
- I noticed that everyone wanted to achieve the same thing. We worked well and let everyone do something!
- We let everyone say what they thought should be added or fixed
- We were working together and sharing ideas to each other
- Everybody got the chance to help in the building process, we all built it
- While building the structure we all agreed on things
- What I noticed about the building process is that if you work with a team it is more fun
- I didn’t feel heard because some of the my group kind of ignored what I said.
Would things have been easier or harder if you hadn’t been required to collaborate in a group?
- It would be easier to do by myself because I don’t have to talk to other people
- It would have been harder to hold [the structure] steady while putting on the tape
- [My role was] holding up things. I felt heard by all of the different group members because we all got a chance to talk.
- It would have been hard to come up with the ideas, and hard to hold up stuff
- It would have been easier if we didn’t collaborate as a group because nobody would knock [the structure] down
- What would’ve been harder was to tkeep it standing on its ownwhile I added supports
- It would be easier if you did it on your own with your own creativity
- The building structure would have looked more like what I had in mind
- I like to work by myself
- Harder, because without teamwork I would not have the great ideas. Everything would have been harder without a group because it’d be more work and less fun.
What was your role in the building process? Would you have liked a different role? Did you feel heard by the other group members?
- I felt like I did everything
- I did tape and I liked it. My group members let me choose where to put the tape and everyone had a voice in the building/design process.
- I felt heard because everyone held where I assigned them to and let go when I asked them to.
- I felt heard a lot because all of our thoughts were put into this
- We sometimes changed the roles so everybody else got the chance to do something
- My role was the tape. I felt heard by the others in the group because we were giving our opinions
- I did not have a role because everyone else was doing everything
- I felt bad they would not try my ideas
- My role was to stay in the middle with or without Izzy, and we did it and built our house. I wish I was in the middle because you don’t have to do much work
- My role was to help tape and come up with some ideas a bout how to keep it standing
- I was building like everybody else. I felt heard by everyone. They listenend to my ideas and put them into action.
- We actually all switched roles at different times
I’m thrilled about how seriously the students took the final written reflection because it provided great insights into what was happening inside each group. As I anticipated, some groups worked well, some didn’t; some kids felt heard, some didn’t. Some kids like working alone and others like working in a group. What’s clear to me, however, is that collaboration is pretty much a skill that needs to be intentionally developed.
On thing I wonder is how this activity would have played out if it had been a group of kids who actually knew each other. If you’re interested here is the full lesson plan. Let me know how it goes!
Malke Rosenfeld is a dance teaching artist, author, editor, math explorer, and presenter whose interests focus on the learning that happens at the intersection of math and the moving body. She also delights in creating rich environments for math art making in which children and adults can explore, make, play, and talk math based on their own questions and inclinations.