Ongoing efforts to strengthen mathematics education in the United States have emphasized the need for students to engage and persevere with meaningful and challenging mathematics problems, and to take active and collaborative roles in problem solving. Teachers often use small group instruction to work toward these goals: small group work occurs in 70% of middle grades mathematics classrooms at least once a week, and on average, accounts for 25% of instructional time in middle grades mathematics classes. Yet effective group work can prove challenging for middle school teachers. Students quickly disengage from difficult tasks and their peer interactions often undermine productive collaborations. The PEARL project brings an interdisciplinary team to: (1) study small group work; (2) understand the challenges involved in promoting successful small groups; and (3) determine ways to help teachers deliver on the promise of group work. The PEARL study involves a carefully sequenced set of research phases that include classroom observations, interviews and surveys with teachers and students regarding mathematics small group work in both naturalistic settings and experimental conditions in order to develop and test both a framework for understanding small group learning environments and strategies to help teachers support successful group work. Results of the study will inform teacher preparation and ongoing education, mathematics teaching practice, and educational research.
The Principles and Standards for School Mathematics and the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics emphasize the critical role of students' deep engagement with meaningful mathematical content with their peers to support development of mathematical understanding. Mathematics classrooms are often structured to meet these goals by arranging students in small group learning environments expected to create peer-to-peer interactions that promote conceptual learning, mathematical communication, and use of peers as learning resources. Effective group work depends on tasks that are cognitively challenging and appropriate for group efforts, group discourse that promotes engagement and meaning making, and peer relational processes that support collaboration and learning. The PEARL project brings an interdisciplinary team to study small group work in middle grades mathematics classrooms, integrating three conceptual frameworks - Mathematics Task, Mathematics Discourse Matrix, and Peer Cultures of Effort and Achievement - to understand the challenges involved in promoting successful small group learning environments, and to determine ways to help teachers deliver on the promise of group work. The PEARL study involves a carefully sequenced set of research phases that include classroom observation, interviews and surveys with students and teachers, and design experiments implemented in naturalistic and experimental settings in order to build, test, and refine an integrated framework that has foundations for research and practice. This framework, and the research design and tools, can stimulate further interdisciplinary study among mathematics educators and educational psychologists in terms of how teachers can coordinate tasks, discourse, and peer cultures in pursuit of successful small group work.