Teaching Cooperative Problem Solving

As we have been building more and routines into our days, I have been working on starting to improve the QUALITY of our partnering and small group work.  It has been interesting to watch, for sure–which students take charge…which ones sit back…which ones are off task…which ones don’t know how to get started…and which ones rush through their work.  Now that I have a better understanding of my how my students work, it’s time to refine the process!  I decided to break out my first open ended challenge since it has a back-to-school theme…and really played it up with the students.  You know…”This is really tough stuff–not all fourth graders can handle math like this.” and “I thought I might have to wait to get started on this–but I think you might be ready.”
Gentle mind games are ok–right?
So…they were able to convince me that they could, indeed, handle the challenge–we got started.  I started by talking a little about back to school shopping and asked them to think about what KIDS think and what PARENTS think about it!  We had a great discussion about prices and costs and discounts….and trendy supplies that have glitter and name brand shoes and so on.  I then set the stage for their problem–and then explained that this would be a cooperative activity.  We brainstormed a list of what makes a group run smoothly–and what gets in the way (off task behavior, “hogging” supplies, being silly, etc) and then set some goals for our project.
1.  Stay on task.
2.  Everyone participates.
3.  Ask for help when needed.
4.  Read and reread directions.
5.  Challenge yourself.
I reminded them that sometimes the right answer is less important than the process–and that their teamwork and cooperation were more important to me than a perfect answer.  I paired them up, made sure they were clear on the task, and sent them on their way.  My job? 
So as I walked around, I noticed a few things…first of all–
 Seriously!  Students were REALLY AND TRULY talking about the problem…about the math…about the “real world” of back to school shopping math.  I seriously couldn’t stop smiling.  Even my most struggling students had an “I can do this” spirit and were trying to make sense of the problem.  For a few, a scaffolded by taking one element out of the problem–instead of having three stores to shop at, I had them only shop at one. This really streamlined the process for a few.
As I walked around I also noticed that pairs were really going back to the information pages and reading and rereading and talking about the content.  I had ZERO students say, “I don’t get it!” or “I don’t know what to do!”.  They really worked as teams to try to get started on the task.  
 As I walked around coaching as needed, I was pleasantly surprised at the “stamina” my students showed me…many students were able to sustain focus for a full hour of working on this problem.  Those that were losing focus were quickly refocused with a quick discussion about their progress and a few guiding questions to get a little traction.
Overall, I was extremely pleased with their first MAJOR attempt at cooperative problem solving. We still have work to do, of course, but the climate has been established…and they seemed to feed off the idea that I was asking them to do “REALLY CHALLENGING MATH”.  It was just a good reminder to me that students can rise to the occasion if we put them in  position to be successful and give them engaging, meaningful work.
Want to check out the problem we worked on?  Here it is!  Check out all the other “Thinker Tasks” in my store–and watch for some new ones this year!
There are a bunch of other Thinker Tasks in my store as well–including a bundle of them all!