Cooperative Learning at MIT

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Gail Anderson  Lansdale, PA

As an alumna of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I like to keep up with the happenings of my alma mater, and, as a CPM Teacher Leader, I was delighted to discover that MIT has moved far in the direction of collaboration-based teaching since my days of large lectures there. In fact, the culture has changed so much, that it is now the expectation of many students: a current MIT student was recently telling me about one of her classes and commented, “I don’t like to criticize teachers… but PowerPoint slides, really? It gives me plenty of time to sit and stare out the window and ponder life.”

While many of their courses are still in large lecture halls (and there is of course a time and place for that), in one of the biggest courses at MIT, freshman physics (a general requirement for all 1000 freshmen), MIT uses a high-tech, student-centered, cooperative learning approach called TEAL lab. Here is the background to TEAL, from their website.

“In the late 1990s, educational innovations in teaching freshman physics, specifically a method called interactive engagement, were delivering greater learning gains than the traditional lecture format. These innovations were not lost on Professor John Belcher, teacher of first-year physics at MIT and one of the three principal investigators on the Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) project. Belcher was grappling with the mismatch between traditional teaching methods and how students actually learn. Despite great lecturers, attendance at MIT’s freshman physics course dropped to 40% by the end of the term, with a 10% failure rate. Even though MIT freshmen had good math skills, they often had a tough time grasping the concepts of first-year physics. Traditional lectures, although excellent for many purposes, do not convey concepts well because of their passive nature.”

In a TEAL classroom, about ten groups of about 8 – 10 students each sit at round tables around a large classroom, which is surrounded by projectors and screens. Each workstation has computers for students to share, to force them to collaborate. The focus is on doing experiments (generally by computer simulation) and figuring out the physics underlying the results, rather than being told what the equations are and asked to repeat the work modelled by the professor.  The two professors circulate around the room during class instead of lecturing from the front of the room.

The TEAL classrooms have many things in common with our CPM classes. For example, students sit in groups and talk things over, while the professors, equipped with wireless microphones, walk around, listen in on or join conversations, and stop the class to address them all and give mini-lectures or redirects as needed. Student work is displayed on the walls for discussion. Some differences? Well, they have much larger classes (about 100 students per section) than I have ever had. They also have a much higher technology budget:  I use white boards on the walls around the room for students to do their work on by hand, while the kids at MIT do their work on laptops which are projected to walls all around the room by multiple projectors. And I use textbooks from CPM instead of computer applets which I or my staff have written!

So, I felt pretty pleased when I could confidently respond to a concern expressed by the founder of iRobot as we enjoyed a dinner conversation centered on current education in STEM at an MIT event last spring. His concern was one I have heard from others in leadership in technical fields: kids these days need to be able to interact with a larger community, and to think independently; they need to be taught differently: it is time to end the lecture hall model of training young people. In fact, he related to us that he had just recently fired a very capable young engineer, not because he could not handle the work or did not have good ideas, but because he simply could not work with the rest of the team in their highly collaborative environment. I assured him, that organizations such as CPM exist, and we are changing the teaching norm, one classroom at a time, all across the country. We are in there, teaching kids to pick up a pencil and “do the math,” giving them time and space to conjecture and explore patterns, and training them to talk to each other and to strive for common goals. And not just in exclusive environments such as MIT, but in schools of all shapes and sizes, from struggling inner city schools, to small independent faith-based schools, to wealthy suburban schools – “more math for more people!”

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Algebra Tiles Blue Icon

Algebra Tiles Session

  • Used throughout CPM middle and high school courses
  • Concrete, geometric representation of algebraic concepts.
  • Two-hour virtual session,
  •  Learn how students build their conceptual understanding of simplifying algebraic expressions
  • Solving equations using these tools.  
  • Determining perimeter,
  • Combining like terms,
  • Comparing expressions,
  • Solving equations
  • Use an area model to multiply polynomials,
  • Factor quadratics and other polynomials, and
  • Complete the square.
  • Support the transition from a concrete (manipulative) representation to an abstract model of mathematics..

Foundations for Implementation

This professional learning is designed for teachers as they begin their implementation of CPM. This series contains multiple components and is grounded in multiple active experiences delivered over the first year. This learning experience will encourage teachers to adjust their instructional practices, expand their content knowledge, and challenge their beliefs about teaching and learning. Teachers and leaders will gain first-hand experience with CPM with emphasis on what they will be teaching. Throughout this series educators will experience the mathematics, consider instructional practices, and learn about the classroom environment necessary for a successful implementation of CPM curriculum resources.

Page 2 of the Professional Learning Progression (PDF) describes all of the components of this learning event and the additional support available. Teachers new to a course, but have previously attended Foundations for Implementation, can choose to engage in the course Content Modules in the Professional Learning Portal rather than attending the entire series of learning events again.

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Building on Instructional Practice Series

The Building on Instructional Practice Series consists of three different events – Building on Discourse, Building on Assessment, Building on Equity – that are designed for teachers with a minimum of one year of experience teaching with CPM instructional materials and who have completed the Foundations for Implementation Series.

Building on Equity

In Building on Equity, participants will learn how to include equitable practices in their classroom and support traditionally underserved students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Essential questions include: How do I shift dependent learners into independent learners? How does my own math identity and cultural background impact my classroom? The focus of day one is equitable classroom culture. Participants will reflect on how their math identity and mindsets impact student learning. They will begin working on a plan for Chapter 1 that creates an equitable classroom culture. The focus of day two and three is implementing equitable tasks. Participants will develop their use of the 5 Practices for Orchestrating Meaningful Mathematical Discussions and curate strategies for supporting all students in becoming leaders of their own learning. Participants will use an equity lens to reflect on and revise their Chapter 1 lesson plans.

Building on Assessment

In Building on Assessment, participants will apply assessment research and develop methods to provide feedback to students and inform equitable assessment decisions. On day one, participants will align assessment practices with learning progressions and the principle of mastery over time as well as write assessment items. During day two, participants will develop rubrics, explore alternate types of assessment, and plan for implementation that supports student ownership. On the third day, participants will develop strategies to monitor progress and provide evidence of proficiency with identified mathematics content and practices. Participants will develop assessment action plans that will encourage continued collaboration within their learning community.

Building on Discourse

In Building on Discourse, participants will improve their ability to facilitate meaningful mathematical discourse. This learning experience will encourage participants to adjust their instructional practices in the areas of sharing math authority, developing independent learners, and the creation of equitable classroom environments. Participants will plan for student learning by using teaching practices such as posing purposeful questioning, supporting productive struggle, and facilitating meaningful mathematical discourse. In doing so, participants learn to support students collaboratively engaged with rich tasks with all elements of the Effective Mathematics Teaching Practices incorporated through intentional and reflective planning.