Approaches to Learning, Design

Partner Frenzy

Today, I was introducing Little Bits to one of my classes. Here’s their tag line:

Screen Shot 2017-08-24 at 3.34.37 PM

Great! I thought. This will be awesome! I thought. I like mixing up teams and partners for working groups, so for this initial task of sorting the kit and then “making something that does something” (free exploration) for the 60 minute lesson, I thought I would just pair off down the register, students 1 and 2 together, 3 and 4, and so on. Total lucky dip.

During lunch I had taken a minute to open the new YouCubed posters:

2017-Norms-Poster 2

I think if you took the words “maths” and “mathematical” these norms could apply to many things students are challenged to do every day. In particular:


Great! I thought. I will have a lesson in which the kids are challenged to use electronics (something they may not think they can do), they will struggle and grow their brains, and all this will be done under the umbrella of collaborative team work.

Or not.

The class was not impressed with my random pairings. Feet stomped, hands thrown in the air, students started suggesting other pairs, some said nothing, some said they were fine with their partner, one said, “NOBODY likes the person they have been partnered with!”  I had forgotten how dramatic fourth graders could be!

I let them go for a minute and then I stepped in. And in a firm, clear voice, I explained that we can do anything for 45 minutes. And we can certainly work with a classmate for that time on this task. And if you didn’t want to work with your assigned partner, that was your choice, but you would also be choosing to not work at all. All kids were heads down in the kits within 30 seconds.

We ended with a reflection. Short and sweet: “We can do anything for 45 minutes and we can always learn from and with each other or at the least, learn something about ourselves and who we are as learners.”

I want the kids to be challenged. I want them to try new things and do things they haven’t done before. I know this is already super challenging for some and the added dynamic of not choosing a partner adds another layer of stress for some. But how to overcome this when resources are limited and need to be shared? Earlier in the day on a different task for which we have an abundance of resources, the class could choose to work alone, pairs, threes, or fours. I loathe the hierarchy of “being picked” and like to avoid this as much as possible. But I also want kids to put all their energy into designing and making, tinkering, and improving, and I wonder if they don’t need to be in self-selected groups to do this at their best.

How do you group kids for learning groups?

5 thoughts on “Partner Frenzy”

  1. Interesting reflection. We had a similar event in our class today. I think one of the biggest lessons we can engage students in (adults, too!) is the idea of impermanence. Change. Flexibility. That Lego item you made representing yourself that you don’t want to change or dismantle to include person 2 in your building? Well…why do you want to hang on to it? How does it make you feel to hang on to it? What are the effects of hanging on to it? What if you kept everything you ever made? How might we ‘sort of’ keep a record of it? It’s the same for possessiveness of friendships and partnerships. However, I recently was forced into a group situation (not at work) to HAVE to work with some people I either did not connect well with, understand or have a voice amongst. I shrunk like a violet rather than blossom like a sunflower. In what ways could I have changed my mindset or experience next time? What was in me that I felt that way? Hmmmm…. 🙂 Darcy

    1. Yes! Impermanence! I spent a long time reflecting on how attached to something kids can become or how 45 mins can seem like a lifetime! It has taken me a while to feel comfortable just diving into group work. I think I am more able to do it when I focus on what I want to get out of the experience (a better understanding of xyxy, ideas on how to xyxyx, etc) so I just dive in rather than wait for the group to mould itself around me. It is tricky though when you want kids to push themselves but still have a voice.

  2. Hey Sonya,
    We have a policy in Middle School that the teacher must assign seats and groups/pairs. The students moan all the time, despite this being in place for years! The main reason it was decided was for inclusion, as often the same students are left out when students self-select seating/groups and cliches evolve. We wanted to prevent that and encourage open mindedness and, above all, that you can learn so much from one another. The trick I feel is to change those pairs/groups frequently and I change the seating once a month as I only teach each class once per week. I keep a record and check and double check the seats to ensure different pairings (I use iDoceo for this). I agree with Darcy above that we work better with ones we feel comfortable with or connect to more, but we can learn more or at least differently by being placed with someone we wouldn’t normally work with. It is our positive mindset that makes that difference.
    Nice post Son!

  3. Hey Sonya,
    As a High School teacher, I find it quite uncomfortable to place 17-year-olds in groups. I kind of feel by the time they reach me they should know who they work well with and should be trusted to work with persons of their choosing. Having said that when I do assign partnerships, I make a point of doing the random assigning process in front of them so they know I haven’t intentionally/maliciously placed them with their least favourite human being. I often get them to line up in some order (e.g. height, birthday, number of languages spoken (it can be anything)) and then pair them off from either end. I explain why I want them in pairs (learning from one anothers experiences etc etc) and then proceed to place them randomly – they see the positive intent (even if they’re unhappy with the final result)

  4. Sonya thank you for this honest and relatable post! It really spoke to me as I’m now into my fourth teaching week and the students are still struggling to be positive about working with different pairings and groups. I love how you adapted Jo Boaler’s math mindset statements for the activity you did with students, as Growth Mindset happens in all areas of learning…especially when we need an open mind, change of attitude, and strategies for working with someone new. Something I realised very quickly in Grade 5 is that ‘Morning Meetings’ were a perfect opportunity for students to learn about ‘diverse circles’. The first day of school (both this year and last) the circle was literally SPLIT down the middle, boys on one side, girls on the other. We now use that word ‘diverse’ a lot more widely now, meaning ‘not someone we play with at recess’ and ‘not someone I sit beside in class’ and it has helped push students to working in different groupings. We’ve also talked a lot about how ‘synapses’ fire when we are feeling challenged and nearly ALL my fifth graders definitely agree that working in ‘diverse’ groupings is a challenge so they are becoming more self-aware that they need to ‘stretch’ and ‘grow’ the part of their brain that develops collaboration skills. Your comment “I wonder if they don’t need to be in self-selected groups to do this at their best” highlights the dilemma of always giving students choice and I do think it’s our job as teachers to push them, and if taking AWAY partnership choice stretches and pushes them out of their comfort zone, then we are definitely doing our job:)

Add Your Voice...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s