Friday, August 1, 2014

Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces and Visible Random Groupings

I presented these ideas at Twitter Math Camp 14 in the flex session on Saturday afternoon. Let me be clear, these great ideas belong to Peter Liljedahl  and he deserves all the praise. I was fortunate to be asked to present at the Canadian Mathematics Education Forum about spiralling the curriculum with activity based teaching. This is where Peter was a Keynote speaker. His idea of visible random groupings (VRG) and Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces (VNPS) resonated with me. I felt it was an excellent teacher move to increase engagement in my classroom and to have learning be student centered.

This post will probably be a little long as I would like to include some of his research as well.

I am going to stick with what happened at TMC14 but you can read more at Peter's website. Peter, I am going to thank you now for inspiring me.

I believe my session at TMC had 11 teachers attend. Going to list them and their twitter handles.
Nathan Kraft @NathanKraft1, Brian Miller @TheMillarMath, Mehgan Craig @mathymeg07, Andy Zsiga @zsiga_andy, Laurel Engstrom @MrsEngstromMath, Beth Temple Sizemore @BethSize, Paula Torres @Lohstorres1, Pam J Wilson @pamjwilson, Viktoria Hart @viktoriahart

I only got nine :( sorry to the two I missed.

I started the session with a card sorting activity. First I made the groups of two by age using visible random groupings (VRG). Participants lined up from oldest to youngest. I paired them off. Paula came in a little late and joined the oldest group. So 4 groups of two and one group of three. If you place the cards ace, two, three, four and five in the order top A5243 bottom and then unload them by showing the first one , second one to the bottom, show the next one, next one to the bottom and continue until you are done they will come out A, 2, 3, 4, 5 in order. I asked participants to find the sequence for 6 cards, then 7 etc.

I asked them to jot their notes or scribbles on Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces (VNPS). The were given a good twenty minutes to explore. Most groups had some success. Nathan and Mehgan quickly got the pattern and did it for ten cards. They got the extension.

Here it is. Use all 52 cards and arrange them in the right order so that when you spell the cards the last letter gets unloaded. So ACE ( the first card goes to the bottom, then the second card goes to the bottom and the third card gets unloaded and it will be an ace, TWO ( the fourth card goes to the bottom and then the fifth card go to the bottom and the sixth card gets unloaded and it will be a 2, THREE ( the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th cards go to the bottom and the 11th gets unloaded and it will be a 3) and so on until you have unloaded the entire deck into four rows of 13 cards from Ace to King. It would look like the picture below. For the record, at the time I had never done this but I now know how. Tweet me if you have figured this whole activity out - I am curious what people think of the activity. Again thanks to Peter Liljedahl for this activity.

After the time was up we talked about the following graphic and the idea of flow in our activities. The idea that we should be doing tasks and activities that have that balance between challenge and skills. If we can accomplish this it will equal engagement. Now the problem becomes finding these types of tasks. Think  Desmos Central Park as an example.

I then introduced the idea of VRG and VNPS. These are exactly what they say. Making random groups every day or every time you start a new activity or task and vertical non permanent writing surfaces. (think white boards on the wall, chalk boards, windows, anything vertical and non permanent). Here are some of the advantages to setting up a classroom environment with these two ideas.

Visible Random Groupings (VRG’s)
Improves engagement and enthusiasm.
Breaks down social barriers.
Vertical Non Permanent Surfaces (VNPS)
Improves visibility.
Allows for transfer of knowledge around the room.
Non-Permanent removes fear of writing.
Formative assessment by teacher at all times.
Teacher can answer questions by having students look at others work.

Another idea was to have only one pen and you could not write your own thoughts. So you have an idea someone else in your group writes it. You could also call out pen swap and any time and someone else in the group would have to write.

One Pen (others thoughts only)
No place to hide ( game).
Creates collaborative environment.
A little of Peter's research from his website.
First they studied the effects of  various things on VNPS, HNPS, VPS, HPS and notebooks.

Here is the data from the study.

At TMC we talked about what we noticed and what we were wondering.
Here is Peter's slide of what jumped out at him.

Clearly non-permanent makes a difference for many things with vertical getting the edge over horizontal.

This picture shows the three key pillars for engagement (good tasks, VNPS and VRG) but it also shows some other things that can be looked at.

I like that we can start with a verbal task, students can work through the task / activity/ question, and then we can debrief and talk about the journey of each group. This summarizes it nicely. Notice that some groups don't get to the expectation, some take the long route, some take the efficient route and some take their route.

My Personal Experience
Since I heard about this I immediately jumped in and experienced it with three classes for 6 weeks. I will not go back to any other structure. I do believe there are times where the students are sitting in groups working on chart paper or collecting data or working on devices or.....but when they are not they will be working on vertical non-permanent surfaces in visible random groupings. I intend to take pictures and upload them to a website for each course and that will be their notes.

Students getting instructions verbally (sometimes we will huddle at the middle of the room where my desk is to get instructions about the task or activity).

My class working on a problem.

De-fronting my classroom.

I finished my presentation with a little discussion about change. I wrote something like this on the board.

It resonated with James who tweeted this and wrote about it here.

I have thoughts on TMC14 but I will blog about that next week. I am going to comment on this presentation only. I had discussed VRG's and VNPS's  with many while at TMC14 and many encouraged me to present it at a flex session on Saturday afternoon. I had just presented the hour before with Mary Bourassa about Spiralling the curriculum with activity based teaching you can read about our experience here. So I went for it. It was well received by those who were there. Here are some comments from our dear friends on twitter.

I really wish more people could of experienced both my sessions at TMC14. In the words of Nathan Kraft, "You got a publicity problem my friend!".


  1. fyi - Shower boards at Lowes or Home Depot is the cheapest way I know to get a lot of whiteboard space. 4' X 8' boards usually run about $10. They will cut them for you too.

    This is great stuff you are talking about here - the think the scariest part of the going from where we are to where we want to be are having great activities. I know Mary blogged about many of them - but maybe a google doc where we could all post to would be helpful as well.

  2. Alex,
    I'm so glad you blogged about this. I'm going to bookmark this just to come back to it for inspiration! I got back and my whiteboards are all up around my room! I am SO EXCITED to start this. It is going to blow my students minds and I'm sure I'll need encouragement when they balk at the change (I know change is hard). I will definitely be pestering you for encouragement (I start Wednesday). I just have to work on always having "the activities" ready. I'm hoping I now have enough to keep me going for awhile (TMC definitely helped). Keep spreading this GREAT IDEA!

  3. This is solid Alex. Just came across your site after reading Nathan Kraft's post. Totally digging this for so many reasons. Just shared it with an ELA colleague and they lost the plot as well!

  4. checkout
    http://modeling.asu.edu/Projects-Resources.html subheading under "Discourse in the Modeling Classroom "

    1. Thanks for dropping by - great links to swallow up some time :)

  5. I am really inspired with your writing. That particular topic is good.

  6. I will definitely visit that blog in future. Thanks for writing on this topic.

  7. Alex, can you help me understand the card sort activity. It just isn't tracking for me.

    Dan Kearney