Tag Archives: Jeannie Oakes

Group Work vs. Working In Groups

I sit my kids in groups. But I don’t like “group work”.

No, that’s not a paradox. Sitting in groups isn’t “group work”.

Group work is an activity that falls under the larger rubric of “collaborative learning”, an organizing bubble to collect techniques and strategies like “Think Pair Share”, jigsawing, peer tutoring, and the like. The most fully-realized collaborative learning pedagogy is probably complex instruction, which was developed by Elizabeth Cohen. (That’s CI, not CISC.) To illustrate, CPM curriculum is based on complex instruction, whereas Everyday Math is not.

Complex Instruction had been in development for over 20 years, by the time it caught on  in the early 90s. Jeannie Oakes’ book Keeping Track, a broadside against any sort of ability grouping.  Oakes accused parents and schools of racial discrimination, an argument that found favor with many schools and teachers. Those schools that weren’t favorable to the argument faced lawsuits or the threat of one. A good chunk of the 90s was wasted as districts and states desperately tried to win her approval, and adopting the CI method was often adopted as the strategy. Fortunately, they all ultimately learned it was easier to disappoint her.1

Complex Instruction was also developed by tracking opponents, but opponents who nonetheless cared about learning. It’s explicitly designed to give schools a tool for the havoc that results when kids with a 3 to 8 year range in abilities are put in the same room, and thus was grabbed at by many schools back in the early 90s. Many CI concepts are also found in “reform math”—Jo Boaler’s Railside study on San Lorenzo High School was all about Complex Instruction. Carlos Cabana and Estelle Woodbury, who just co-authored Mathematics for Equity, a book on teaching math with Complex Instruction, both worked at San Lorenzo High School during Boaler’s study.

So start with the theory, articulated here by Rachel Lotan, the late Cohen’s key associate. You should watch this, or at least fast forward through parts, because Lotan clearly articulates the admirable goals of complex instruction minus the castigation, blame, and fuming ideology. Or, Complex Instruction’s major components in written form:


Both Lotan and the writeup offer much that is problematic. Reducing the ability range: not good. Creating busywork tasks (writing down questions, getting supplies) to let everyone feel “smart”: not good.

The write up mentions “status problems”. Lotan gives a great account of an absurdly pretentious term, “mitigating status” that is something every teacher in every classroom–no matter how they are seated—should take seriously. Lotan does a better job of explaining it, but since many won’t listen to the video, here’s a written version:

CI targets equity and, in particular, three ideas: first, that all students are smart; second, that issues of status—who is perceived as smart and who is not—interfere with students’ participation and learning; and third, that it is teachers’ responsibility to provide all students with opportunities to reveal how they are smart and develop/recognize new ways of being smart. The complex instruction model aims to “disrupt typical hierarchies of who is ‘smart’ and who is not” (Sapon-Shevin, 2004) by promoting equal status interactions amongst students so that they engage with tasks that have high cognitive demand within a cooperative learning environment.

(emphasis mine)

Ed schools wanting to hammer home how putting kids in groups doesn’t by itself address status usually show this video, but brace yourself. I tell myself that the ignored kid is probably a pest all the time, that everyone in the class is tired of his nonsense, that we’re just seeing a carefully culled selection to maximize the impact of exclusion and of course, race. It doesn’t matter. It’s still hard to watch.

And the video also reinforces the practical message that CI advocates are pushing, as opposed to the theory. In theory, status can be unearned by anyone of any gender or color. In practice, most CI advocates expect teachers to shut down white males. In theory, kids learn that everyone is smart. In practice, kids still know who’s “smart” and who’s not.

But then, CI advocates have their own frustrations. In theory, they’d put teachers in PD designed to indoctrinate them into realizing the error of their racist ways. In practice, teachers who haven’t already drunk the Koolaid either politely fake it until they can find an exit or get really annoyed when they’re called racists, as an excerpt for Mathematics for Equity makes clear:

Cite: Mathematics for Equity1

Complex Instruction done well is pretty interesting and often thought-provoking. Cathy Humphreys is a long-time advocate of “reform math” and complex instruction. She was at the center of one of those “rich educated parents” meltdowns that you saw over reform math back in the 90s. Humphreys represented the reform side, of course, and further endeared herself to parents by proposing to get rid of tracking at a Palo Alto, CA middle school. That went over like a water balloon down a balcony, she quit, worked as a math coach for a while, and then taught for years at a diverse high school in the Bay Area that had ended tracking. She also teaches at Stanford’s education program, according to her bio. Carlos Cabana, one of the co-authors of Mathematics for Equity, has also been teaching complex instruction for a long time; he’s one of the teachers at Railside, Jo Boaler’s pseudonym for San Lorenzo High School.

You can see both Humphreys and Cabana here at a website put together by the Noyce Foundation to promote the 8 essential practices. (Notice the link between “reform math” and supporting “common core”? As Tom Loveless says, Common Core is a “dog whistle” for reform math. Humphreys and Cabana are teaching high school math in the videos. You can also see Humphreys teaching at what I assume is the middle school that melted down. Humphreys and Cabana are much better demonstrations of complex instruction than the absurdly flashy promos that Jo Boaler puts out.

When I began teaching, I thought sitting kids in groups was absurd. I remember being pleased one of my mentoring teachers put kids in rows. But my primary student teaching assignment required me to sit kids in groups, as we were using CPM, a reform text that requires groups. I adjusted and liked it much more than I thought I would, especially when I took over the class and could group by ability. But my first year out, I happily put my desks in rows, thinking that groups were good, but now I could finally run my class the way I wanted.

Four weeks later, I put the kids in groups. It just….felt better. Year 2, I was teaching all-algebra, all the time, and thought rows would make more sense. The rows lasted 2 weeks and since around September of 2010, the only time my kids sit in rows is for tests.

I have….mixed feelings about CI. When promoted by the fanatic adherents, it’s both Orwellian and despicable. Teachers have to squelch kids who know the answer, force kids who understand the concept to explain, endlessly, to the kids who don’t, and then grade the kids who know the answer not on their demonstrated knowledge but on the success of their explanation and their willingness to do so. Teachers have to pretend to their students that asking a good question or taking notes is just as important as understanding the math (no, say the fanatic adherents, teachers aren’t pretending. These tasks are just as important!).

But while no student is ever going to believe that everyone is smart, “issues of status” do absolutely impact a students’ willingness to participate. Let the “smart kids” talk, everyone thinks, and sits back and zones out.

However, in my opinion and experience, CI methods often achieve exactly what they are defined to avoid, precisely because of their Orwellian insistence on ignoring reality. Kids know who is smart. They shut down if the smart kid is in their group, and go through the motions when the teacher walks by.

Ironically, I “mitigate status” by violating Complex Instruction’s most sacred tenet. Complex Instruction holds that student groups must be heterogeneous. Organization can’t be based on the rigid, academic version of “smart”. But I group my kids by ability as the most effective way of “mitigating status”.

I don’t want the weakest students in my class feeling as if any success short of an “A” is irrelevant. I also don’t want to try and convince them they’re just as “smart” as students who don’t struggle with the same material. That way, my students know that they can talk about math, what they need to know, what questions they have, knowing that other students probably have similar issues.

I don’t want to make it sound as if “mitigating status” is the only reason I sit kids in groups. Groups allow me to differentiate tasks slightly (or extensively) and enables me to quickly give help or new tasks. Groups allow kids to work together, discussing math, developing at their own speed with peers who have similar abilities.

But whether it’s status or some other curricular reason, when I sit them in groups, they start working and talking about math. They discover they are working with peers who won’t make them feel stupid, and they start to have discussions. Should we do this or this? They call me over to adjudicate. They try things. They check their notes, engage in all those excellent student behaviors. Not always, of course. But many times. They are less likely to sit passively and wait until I come by to personally tutor them through problems.

Moreover, because they are working with students of their own ability, they don’t feel alone or stupid. They work to improve. Maybe not great, maybe not good. But better.

Sitting kids in groups is not group work. But sitting kids in groups based on ability and giving them achievable tasks makes them more likely to work, and as math teachers often know, that’s no small thing.

1 I was thinking crap, I don’t want to have to look up the whole history of the ebb and flow of tracking and then went hey, Tom Loveless has to have something on this and by golly he does: The Resurgence of Ability Grouping and Persistence of Tracking covers the whole era, Oakes included. I would only quibble slightly with this sentence: Although the call to detrack was not accompanied by conventional incentives—the big budgets, regulatory regimes, and rewards and sanctions that draw the attention of policy analysts—detracking was, in a field famous for ignored or subverted policies, adopted by a large number of schools.

Loveless appears to forget the biggest incentive of all: lawsuit avoidance. Detracking lawsuits were the rage in this time period. Unlike new curriculum or teaching styles, detracking is achieved by executive fiat by district superintendents. No training, no carrots needed. Shazam! But leaving aside that minor quibble, a great piece documenting the move to and then the move away from heterogeneous classrooms (de-tracked).