Visibly random groups & Vertical non-permanent surfaces

I have been trying to shift my Math classes toward activity- / problem-based learning. We still have individual practice days, but as much as possible I want them solving new, complicated problems in groups. Two ideas that I heard about at a meeting of the OCDSB Mathematics Department Heads have really changed how I do things in class lately:

  1. Visibly Random Groups
  2. Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces

Both ideas come from the work of Peter Liljedahl and have been gaining traction amongst OCDSB teachers lately, particularly in Mathematics classrooms.


Visibly Random Groups (VRGs):

Original research available here.

Every day I make random groups so that my students work with different partners each day. Students are learning from ALL of their classmates this way, getting a chance to hear different viewpoints, different strategies each day. To make these random groups, some teachers use a smartphone app such as “Shuffle Names, Dice” while others use websites such as “Team Maker”.

When I first started using VRGs in my classes, I used the Team Maker website. You paste in your class list of names & it makes however many groups you ask it to. But I would have to go through the list & delete any students who were absent. This meant the groups could only be created after the bell had rung. I wanted a system that would tell students their group for the day as they arrive so that they can sit right down & get started.

So this year I have been using a deck of cards (low-tech & old school!). Here’s how I do it. I post their bellwork assignment on the screen/board before class starts. The desks in my classroom are arranged in 8 groups of 4 desks, each with the group number hanging from the ceiling above them (which you can see if you look closely in this photo).

IMG_5935For a more recent photo of my room check this post.

I stand outside my classroom door during the travel time. As my students arrive I hand them a playing card (with a number from 1 through 8 on it) indicating which group they are sitting at that day. This method for VRG has the added bonus of giving me the chance to personally greet each student as they arrive to class as well as monitor student behaviour in the halls during transition times.

The conversations I hear between students while problem solving this year are far richer than previous years & I believe it also contributes to a positive culture of collaboration & sharing in my classroom.

Peter Liljedahl’s research shows the following benefits for VRGs:

Vertical NonPermanent Surfaces VNPS.PNG

Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces (VNPSs):

Original research available here.

After we finish the bellwork activity to start class off, I usually present the problem or activity of the day (often done in Dan Meyer’s 3-act math style). Students solve the problem in their small groups (I try to limit each group to 3 students – which works when my class has 24 students or less). They get out of their seats & proceed to a section of blackboard or whiteboard assigned to their group in order to solve the problem

The vertical nature of the surface:

  • gets students out of their seats which seems to activate their thinking
  • allows students to see the work of other groups which gives them ideas of things to try or perhaps what not to try
  • allows me as the teacher to see the work of each group at a quick glance, which prompts me to offer feedback & question their thinking as they work

The non-permanence of the surface is important too. Students seem willing to get to work faster and are willing to make mistakes because they can be so easily erased. Pencil & paper can be erased too, but there’s something about the whiteboard or chalkboard that makes students more willing to just try something. As Peter Liljedahl’s research shows in the data below, students get to work faster, they work longer, and are more engaged:

I have two walls w/ blackboards in my classroom & the third wall (which already has a DIY whiteboard for a projector screen in the middle) will be getting fully covered with DIY whiteboards in the coming week. My 4th wall is windows, although I know other teachers that get DIY whiteboards cut to size & lean them up against windows to create student work stations there as well. (Update: I now have the 3rd wall covered end to end with whiteboards & a small “station” set up in one of the window wells on the 4th wall as well).

The rules of working on the VNPSs in my class:

  • One person has the chalk at a time.
  • The person with the chalk can only write down what their partners tell them to (if they want to explain the next step, they hand the chalk to a different partner).
  • The teacher can say “switch the chalk” at any point & a new partner needs to become the writer.
  • I also tell them that if one person does the solving & writing without partner input, I’ll erase their work.
  • No sitting down.
  • No working things out on paper before using the board.

Have you tried VRGs and/or VNPSs in your classroom? Leave a comment below!
Check out some other teachers’ experiences with these ideas like Mr. Overwijk’s:

Update: I wrote an article for Edutopia about the first 3 elements of the Thinking Classroom – good tasks, VRGs & VNPSs – that you can read here

– Laura Wheeler (Teacher @ Ridgemont High School, OCDSB; Ottawa, ON)

Pear Deck in Math Class; a Student-Response System

I’ve tried other student-response systems in the past, like Poll Everywhere, but they are clunky in that you have to exit your current slideshow / lesson material & go over to a different site to use them. With Poll Everywhere my students were always confused about what to text & to which number.
I’ve heard rumours that my school owns a set of clickers also, but I’ve never seen them.

Enter: Pear Deck!

I was introduced to Pear Deck at a session at the Google Apps for Education Conference in Ottawa earlier this month. I was immediately sold on the potential for Pear Deck in my classroom. So far I’ve used it in my Math class and Leadership class; neither of which is a 1:1 tech classroom. My students use their own smartphones and if I’m lucky enough to be able to book some extra iPads then I loan those out too.

A quick primer on how Pear Deck works if you’re interested:

Creating a New Deck:

Presenting a Deck: 

How I’ve used it in my Math class:

Here was my most powerful experience so far:
In Grade 10 applied Math, students will need to be able to formulate their own questions about a video or photo in the summative task at the end of the course (à la act 1 of Dan Meyer’s 3-act math). That day I wanted to look at substituting values into formulas or equations and solving for the remaining unknown (this is the 1st overall expectation of Linear Relations for MFM2P). I could have simply prepared the questions in advance I wanted them to solve, but I decided to have them create the questions.

After having them log in to the Pear Deck presentation and a warm up problem I won’t show here, I presented this slide:


Students recognized the formula as the area of a circle. The prompt was to “create a question that could be solved using this formula”. This particular slide was a “text response” slide. Student responses started to come in:slide2

You can see that “F” started calculating something with the formula – so I was able to re-explain what I wanted to F. Some of the students are referring to area for 3D solids, so this allows me to prompt a class discussion about the difference between area & surface area. And whether or not a scoop of ice cream relates to the circle formula (student Y).

I wanted a simple problem for them to try to start. So I chose M’s question. I was able to select it & show it alone to the class using the “show student responses” feature. slide3

Notice M’s name is not displayed which is great for privacy. But of course M was very proud that their question was chosen & they promptly let the class know it was theirs. My students were then instructed to go to their blackboard station (vertical non-permanent surfaces) with their group (visibly random groups) in order to solve the problem.
They did so quickly, we discussed each team’s solution & returned to our desks & devices w/ Pear Deck.

Next I wanted to have them substitute a value for Area & solve for the radius. So this time I chose A’s question:

And again I sent them to the blackboards in their groups.

The students whose questions were selected were so proud. And they weren’t the students who would have been first to raise a hand or offer a question if I’d just asked the question orally in class. Something about the thinking time, and the ability to quietly type in their response means more engagement from ALL students, not just my keeners. It means I HEAR the quiet/shy students’ responses more often because I’m not relying on hands up & loud voices for the response; I can see everybody’s response at once.

I plan to post more on how I’ve used Pear Deck in the classroom in the coming weeks; to show you the different slide types available. I will also be giving a demonstration to the entire staff of my school at our next staff meeting because I really believe this is a powerful tool.

A few caveats:

  • Some slide types are not available in the free version (drawing & draggable). But there is a free 30-day trail of the full version.
    And plenty is still available in the free version: multiple choice questions, text-based response & numeric response. Many teachers would be fine with only the free version.
  • The fee is $100 per year for the full version for teachers.
  • You’ll need a Gmail address; this product works with Google (no problem for OCDSB teachers as our emails are all Google now).
  • There is no way to create a public link to your slides as of yet. This is a problem for me as I like to link to the day’s activities on our class website. In chatting with one of the co-founders of Pear Deck, they say they are working on an option to save the slides as a PDF file which one could then upload to a class website. I look forward to this feature very much!

How have you use Pear Deck in your classroom? Leave a comment below!

– Laura Wheeler (Teacher @ Ridgemont High School, OCDSB; Ottawa, ON)