Adult learners benefit from working in different groups: independently as individuals, collaboratively with a partner or in a small group on different occasions. Working collaboratively includes talking about mathematics, evaluating their own or others’ work and responding constructively, problem solving in pairs or small groups and presenting ideas to a wider group. Many adult learners may be unfamiliar with the concept of ‘discussing maths’ and may even resist at first. However, once they see the benefits to their learning, most adults do enjoy the opportunity to talk about mathematics.
To help get over the reticence that some adults may have about talking in mathematics lessons, it can be helpful to use some starter activities that help develop their skills of oral communication, discussion, explaining, justifying, listening and collaboration. However, there may be some adults who do not wish to talk about mathematics and are unable to adapt to this approach. Having one-to-one discussions with them to talk about their interests can be helpful in breaking down barriers and may enable you to find a context that will help them to feel more comfortable with mathematical discussion.
For example, ‘Fourbidden Too’ is a card game devised by Phil Dodd, which promotes the use of mathematical language. Each card has on it a single mathematical word that the learner has to communicate to a partner by describing what it means, without using or spelling the word. In addition, the card has four other words on it that are forbidden to be used by the describer.
For example, the word might be ‘addition’ and the forbidden words might be ‘sum’, ‘plus’, ‘minus’, ‘together’. The aim of the game is to communicate the meanings of all the words on the cards as efficiently as possible. Afterwards, there could be a class discussion about, for example, which cards were the easiest or hardest and why. Learners could also make up their own cards for other people to try out.
For small group discussion, you may need to change the membership of the groups from time to time so that learners experience working with different people. Sometimes groups may be of the same level of attainment, sometimes of mixed levels of attainment. Friendship groups may form within a given class and often these can form the basis of good working groups.
One possible way of encouraging learners to interact with a variety of learners within the group might be as follows.
Ask learners to work in groups of three and assign each group member a letter; A, B, C. Each group will have a piece of paper which has a topic or idea that they should discuss between them and make notes on. For example, there may be four groups with ‘bar charts’, ‘tally charts’, ‘pie charts’ and ‘pictograms’ as their topics. After the discussion, all the As move into a group, all the Bs into another and all the Cs into another. They then share what they have discussed so that all the information from all the groups is shared with everyone else. The As, Bs and Cs act as ‘experts’ on their particular idea or topic.
During this activity the teacher would be listening in to the discussions in order to monitor how they are going and to pick up on any issues that arise and that they may wish to focus on later in the session.
This activity could also be followed up by group presentations to the whole class.
For some discussions, either you or the group may want to assign roles to particular members. For example, leading the discussion, taking notes, drawing diagrams etc. Assigning roles at times can help learners to feel valued and increase their confidence. Assigning a less verbal role, such as drawing diagrams, might be a useful starting point for learners who are reluctant to talk.
Having an extension activity ready to give to any group that reaches a conclusion quickly allows other groups to continue their thinking and provides extra challenge for the quicker group.
Some adult learners might prefer to work individually and at times it is important that all learners are able to work on their own so you might use worksheets, for example, from time to time. Remember that everyone has different styles of learning so it is not appropriate to use any one approach the whole of the time. Variety is crucial.