ITM: Investigation Team Management

A metaphor for the teacher's role in problem-based instruction using collaborative groups*

Larry Copes

In a traditional environment, a teacher acts as a dispenser of knowledge. A more effective role for you might be described as a manager of investigation teams.

Imagine that you are employed by a company or government agency. You supervise teams of employees whose work is to solve various problems that come your way. What would your job entail?

Some of your tasks would be similar to what you probably already do, such as assigning problems to teams, evaluating the workers, and dealing with higher-ups. Other aspects of a management job you might find less familiar in a traditional environment and may have to phase in over time:

Good managers avoid micromanaging. Begin to trust the groups to organize their work, to think creatively, and to self-correct. Gradually you can intervene less and less, until you're focusing only on helping the groups work more effectively, perhaps by controlling disruption. When groups present to the class, increasingly hold back, letting other students critique them before you ask clarifying questions.

Even the best managers don't know the outcomes. In business, money would be wasted in having the teams investigate problems managers could already solve. In education, though, you can indeed solve the problems yourself. But if you work toward more and more openness, you can't really anticipate the outcomes. As you learn to resist students' manipulations to get you to tell them or show them everything, and as you encourage them to think creatively yet critically, they will begin to produce ideas you haven't anticipated—ideas that you can then use to bring about deep understanding.

Good managers are experienced investigators. Although you may be increasingly surprised by the outcomes, you have experience at problem solving. You can offer suggestions, not to give omniscient "hints" but to provide good thinking strategies. "You know, the problem seems pretty complicated to me. I often find it helpful to work on a simpler problem first. Have you tried that?" Or "Do I remember that you reported on a similar case before?" Or "I believe I heard that the group over there had an idea about that. Why don't you send a representative over to find out if I heard correctly?" "Are you trying to say that this method trisects every angle? Do the rest of you agree?"

Good managers hold workers accountable. You pick individuals or groups to present their ideas to the entire class. Increasingly part of the grade you give each student reflects your assessment of that student's contributions to group work.

Good managers give appropriate praise and encouragement. You can't very well praise students for being "on the right track" while you're in the role of not knowing how to solve the problem. You can, however, praise good thinking and cooperation when you see it. You can also encourage students to learn from mistakes and persevere despite setbacks.

Good managers are not the center of attention. As you observe group work and presentations, begin sitting down or kneeling (ouch) as much as possible to remove attention from yourself. Consciously try to disappear from students' awareness. Attempt to suppress the "ham" in you, the desire to be the focus of attention. Move toward letting students be more independent thinkers and learners.

Good managers take a long-term perspective. Become more familiar with the entire curriculum and where the problem you've just assigned lies in that context. Become aware of the extent to which you must transcend the focus on solving this particular problem, and build students' problem-solving and group skills so that they can deal successfully with problems ahead. Think more and more about the students' life spans, and of how important the process skills will be in those lives.

Good managers manage. They don't manage the thought process, or it would be no better than their own thinking. But they manage the groups of workers. Begin focusing on doing all that you can to help the groups function well together. Keep control of the working atmosphere, so that individual workers feel confident that they can contribute and nobody distracts others from working. Think more about also controlling the order of group presentations so that students get ideas from each other.

*Adapted from Copes, L. and Shager, K., "Phasing problem-based teaching into a traditional educational environment," in Schoen, H. (ed), Teaching Mathematics Through Problem Solving: Grades 6-12 , National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2003.

Institute for Studies in Educational Mathematics