Collaborative learning in mathematics

The answer to this clue from 4 pics 1 word is dull.

The answer to this clue from 4 pics 1 word is “dull”.


Mathematics suffers an unfortunate public relationship problem. Dame Mary Marsh DBE, the chair of the NAICE Committee of Inquiry on Adult Numeracy Learning introduces the 2011 report¹ like this:

“We have a numeracy problem in this country – we are a nation quite happy to admit to ‘being bad at maths’, we see people almost wearing it as a badge of honour, in way they would never admit to saying they couldn’t read or write.”

Rachel Riley, the current co-host of countdown echo’s this:

“For some reason we think it’s OK to say we’re bad at maths. People are generally embarrassed to admit they can’t read or write, but think it’s fine to say, ‘I’m rubbish at maths’. We need to end that culture. Maths is important in everything you do, whatever job you have and in everyday life.”

This isn’t something that is just said by the uneducated. Alan Stevens, from the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications says:

“Even engineers sometimes say they’re no good at maths. This makes it seem even more acceptable and projects the wrong image, the image that maths is indeed an ivory tower which is dull and boring and of no interest or use to intelligent people. That’s the wrong image.”²

As maths teachers this is perception of our subject that many of our students hold and that affects the their attitude to learning. Earlier this year I blogged about how I had asked each of my classes what they expected from me. The answers are combined into this Wordle:


The two biggest requests from students were that I should make their lessons fun and that I should provide them with enough help and support. Enter collaborative learning…

Collaborative Learning

In order to introduce more collaborative learning into my lessons the first thing that I had to change was my classroom environment. Previously I’d taught with the desks in my classroom either in rows or in a horseshoe shape. I’ve now rearranged them into groups of four – far more conducive to collaboration.

Craig Barton, author of writes³:

“Group work in mathematics is a tricky one. At times students can see it as a “sit-off” and chaos without any real learning can ensue.”

However, he goes on to say:

“Students can often learn more from each other, and in different ways, than they do from the teacher, and may also embrace the freedom they have been given to produce some incredibly creative, high-quality work.”

In order to introduce collaborative learning, the second thing I’ve had to do has been to teach the students how to work successfully in groups. Initially I did this in discussion based work by making it clear that at the end of the task in question that every, and any, person in the group should be able to give me an answer the question or explain the method. Introducing roles to group members can be useful if groups are finding it difficult to gel, or if you have some students who have a tendency to take over, or to sit back. Some use Kagan structures in order to provide balance to group activities. One of the key things for me has been the realisation that until group work is established as a regular routine, group tasks will need to be simplified.

“If students retain a discipline- or task-achievement focus then this can cause additional stress and anxiety as the students are having to master these new metacognitive aspects along with the pressure of completing the task to a high standard – a significant overload.”4

Ofsted provide backing for collaborative learning in their 2008 mathematics report: 5

In the best lessons, ‘pupils were expected to work productively in pairs or groups, discussing their learning, trying out new skills and exploring concepts.


As yet, evidence for impact of this in lessons is simply anecdotal. Students have said that they enjoy working collaboratively and pupil motivation does seem to have improved. I am intending to use it to improve pupil’s written communication. Two weeks ago I tweeted the following picture, with the tweet:

“Maths is about communication. How do you encourage your students to use words in their answers?”


Ian Dickerson replied back to me:

Relay. 3 minutes before passing the question on to the next person to continue. Have to communicate to succeed.

I don’t think I will ever go back to teaching in rows – I am now completely sold on the benefits of group work and working collaboratively. Why don’t you try it in your classroom and blog about how you’ve found it?

This post has been written as part of the #blogsync project under the topic of “A Teaching and Learning strategy intended to elicit the highest levels of student motivation in my subject”. To read more posts on this topic, or to sign up for next month’s #blogsync, visit the #blogsync website.


1 NIACE 2011 Final Report

2 BBC News – How to solve the British Maths Problem

3 TES Resource Collection – MrBartonMaths

4 Collaborative learning and anxiety

5 Mathematics: Understanding the score


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3 Responses to “Collaborative learning in mathematics”

  1. Beki M says:

    This is interesting! I’m doing some group work at a school placement (admittedly not really maths..) and looking at the way in which people learn, then incorporating it into the lesson planning requires some really creative thinking and using all sorts of different methods.

  2. oldandrew says:

    Depressing that people still present these diagrams about memory that have absolutely no basis in fact in order to justify teaching methods which are not particularly effective.

    Here’s a rather thorough debunking of the learning pyramid:

    If you are curious as to why people have to manufacture evidence in order to provide a psychological justification for groupwork, then a quick search for “The Ringelmann Effect” might clear that up.

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