Making Groupwork Happen

I’ve been investigating complex instruction (CI) over the past few months as part of my M.Ed at the University of British Columbia. CI offers an approach for teachers to use in their classrooms to temper the status differences that inevitably arise in group work situations. I first came across the approach when doing some further research on a school called Railside, a name given by Stanford mathematics education professor Jo Boaler to an ethnically diverse, urban school in southern California. Boaler conducted a longitudinal study there and at two other local area schools to study learning gains and found something else.

At Railside, all of the teachers in the mathematics department were using CI, and their students not only demonstrated great learning gains, but showed an appreciation for the power and beauty of mathematics that teachers yearn to pass on to their students and a desire to improve they way they worked in groups so that they could sustain the learning community that had evolved in their classes. Intrigued, I decided to investigate further.

CI explores access issues that take place when group work is implemented. We teachers have all seen students who were too shy to contribute, or who were deemed unable to do the task, or who simply sat back and let others do the work while the rest of their classmates got frustrated. However, thinking of it in terms of an access issue, if we place students together for the purpose of learning and only some students do the work while others are forced out or choose not to participate, not all students have the same access to the learning that is meant to take place in groups.

For many teachers, group work is daunting to implement because of these and the plethora of other problems that can come up. How do I ensure that students truly work together to create a group product that they all contributed to? How do I ensure individual accountability for the contributions students make in their group? How do I ensure students are learning? Naturally, I was skeptical of this new approach. After all, if it is based on over 20 years of classroom research, and two books have been published, why isn’t it already widespread?

Components of Complex Instruction

The answer to that final question still escapes me. CI seems to have all the bases covered. CI starts with a multidimensional classroom – one where academic success is measured on many different abilities, such as coming up with different solutions, explaining solutions, justifying solutions, using different representations, making a model of your solution, asking good questions, and so on. Quite simply, more students have success because there are more ways to have success.

Tasks and group roles are structured to be “group worthy” – so that students have to work interdependently to complete the task successfully. The roles also enable the delegation of authority so that the class can achieve a state of decentralized control. This allows the teacher to move around to assist and prompt students as needed.

Two treatments are recommended as the teacher is circulating. First, the multiple abilities treatment involves the teacher continuing to reinforce – in words as well as through classroom structure – that no one will have all of the abilities to complete a task themselves, but everyone in the group has at least one of the abilities. Second, through the assigning competence treatment, teachers listen intently to group discussions and interject to purposefully raise the status of something a low-status student has shared in a group.

CI is incredibly ambitious in what it sets out to achieve. CI seeks to improve student achievement, collaborative skills, metacognition, equitable participation, student autonomy, and approaches to learning. That’s just about everything that any teacher could possibly hope for their class of students!

My Contribution

Founders of CI state very clearly that all of this hinges on the task that students gather around. So, for my final M.Ed project, I will be investigating what a CI task looks like and design my own task (perhaps a whole unit) and reflect on this design process. I have the fortune of being able to attend Designing Effective Groupwork in Mathematics, a workshop offered by CI practitioners at the University of Washington. As I move forward to teaching at Branksome Hall Asia next year, I am interested to move from theory to practice and examine the feasibility of the use of CI in my classroom, and will post my thoughts as I go here.


Free mathematics CI tasks are available on the NRICH and the Complex Instruction Consortium websites, and Dan Meyer intends that CI be used for his Three-Act Math Tasks. See a CI lesson presented by Dan Meyer from his talk given at Cambridge University in March of this year. This gives you a great look at some of the ideas I’ve discussed above.

Also, if anyone is interested, Boaler is offering a free online course for teachers and parents through Stanford University called How to Learn Math. It’s available July 15 to September 27, 2013. Pass this on to interested parents and teachers!


4 thoughts on “Making Groupwork Happen

  1. Hi Rob,

    Thank you for summarizing complex instruction. I find that the more I see this type of teaching defined, the easier it becomes to place my own teaching style within it’s framework.

    If you intend to participate in Jo Boaler’s course, I’ll see you there, along with a number of my colleagues.



    • Hey David,
      Thanks for reading and your comments. I find that the more I summarize and explain it to people, the more questions I have about it. I think that’s a good sign – as it’s best for us to continually analyze the things we do in our classroom. Looking forward to Jo Boaler’s course!


  2. Hi Rob,

    I am a senior at the University of Illinois studying math education. After having observed classes during early field experiences the past year, I’ve noticed how CPM (College Preparatory Mathematics) has allowed students the opportunity to work in small groups of 3-4. However, I notice that when students work in these groups, there is a still a disproportionate amount of effort put forth by group members. Based on what you’ve described above, it seems that CI could be an effective method for helping to balance out group contributions. However, I still don’t know if I quite see how it differs from normal group work activities. Would you mind clarifying the difference for me or describing what sets it apart?


    Cam Wieczorek


    • Hello Cam,
      Thanks for connecting and reading my post. It’s interesting that you have been able to experience teachers using CPM as it is actually a textbook series developed by teachers who used CI in schools and aimed for CI to be used while teaching their lessons. CI is similar to other group work philosophies in that it applies roles to allow each student to contribute, has agreements on norms of group work behaviour and sets out to use group work as a way to get students to engage with the content and further their learning. CI is different in one key way: its purpose is to temper status differences that inevitably arise in group work situations. This is precisely why I was not surprised to read that there was something disproportionate happening in groups. When you put humans in a group to work together, it is natural that they make judgements within the first 5 minutes of working about who has more ability than the other, thus creating status differences among them that can affect they way they work. Disproportionate work is one of these consequences.

      It may simply be that one member decides that they will sit back until the member with the A-type personality gets frustrated and does it all for everyone else. Sometimes it isn’t that simple. It may be that the student appearing to be lazy is disengaged for other reasons. Maybe they’re bored (the work it too easy) or exhausted (the work is too hard). Maybe they’re frustrated because no one is listening to them when they’re trying to make a contribution, or no one is bothering to keep them up to speed because they don’t understand something and it might slow the group down. Maybe they’ve given up because someone in the group is dominating discussion. Or maybe…. you get the idea.

      Disproportionalities are inevitable. It is the ultimate dilemma of group work. It is the reason teachers likely “do group work wrong” or give up on it altogether. It is a natural consequence of the spontaneity inherent in heterogeneous complex systems. And a group of 3-4 young adults is one heck of a diverse complex system!! But the benefits that can be had for student learning in groups make it well worth engaging in the challenges inherent therein.

      CI sets out to use the power the teacher has to redirect students to see the strengths others in the group have that will enable them to add value to and contribute to their work together.The teacher’s goal is equity (note: not equality – group work is not equal). A key teacher “move” is assigning competence: essentially, pointing out evidence of a student’s contribution. This is more than just saying “good work”. It takes careful observation to identify the value that each particular student adds to their group’s work together, then being there to point that out to the entire group when it happens. It is a public act of complimenting something the student has done to drive the learning forward for all group members: asking a good question, being a skeptic, persisting in problem solving, expressing confusion, demanding explanation and rigour, communicating effectively,… the list goes on – and includes all the things we want our students doing on a daily basis that will make them successful in the classroom and beyond.

      CI is just as it is named: it is complex. Your classroom will not be revolutionary overnight, and perhaps not even after a year or two of working at it. My classroom isn’t where I want it to be yet either. But the effort to engage in it is what matters and I see benefits of it each day.

      I certainly can’t fully answer your question, but I hope I’ve given it a start. See the early work from Elizabeth Cohen and Rachel Lotan during their time at Stanford. I would recommend Elizabeth Cohen’s book, Designing Groupwork Strategies for Heterogenous Classrooms (1994, with 3rd edition released in 2014), as a key starting point. Jo Boaler’s work (you’ve likely heard of her by now) combines Cohen’s and Lotan’s (she worked with Cohen and Lotan), her experience at the Railside school and in the UK, and Carol Dweck’s recent work on Mindset and has really enhanced CI and taken it in a refreshing direction. A good amount of Boaler’s work can be found by downloadable PDF on her bio page on the Stanford University website: Scroll to the bottom and click on “Recent Publications”, and take your pick.

      Hope this helps!


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