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Work Stations a Help or a Hindrance to Teaching Problem Solving in Upper Elementary?

During the summer it is normal to finding me knee deep in reading educational books that will help me in area that I felt like I needed some fine tuning. Well, this summer I read Smarter Together! Collaboration and Equity in the Elementary Math Classroom a book I bought at the NCTM conference in New Orleans.

Smarter Together!
Smarter Together!

This book was a real eye-opener because last school year left me feeling like I did not properly prepare my 4th grade math students  for the constructed response portion of the LEAP test. As I reflected on the” GLOWS “and “GROWS ” from last school year I had to  ask the question are work stations a hindrance to students who lack true problem solving skills? Before last year I would have said no, but after my experience with teaching students who did not have any problem solving tools or skills other than to look for key words I would have to agree that work stations are not appropriate for these kinds of students.

I know that many elementary school teachers and elementary administrators would disagree with me because most k-2 teachers and traditional elementary administrators think that centers or workstations have some kind of magical power and are a cure all for struggling students. I believe that the shifts in the Common Core Standards require a shift in our approach to teaching problem solving to upper elementary students. In the book Smarter Together the author references the work of psychologists Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and Anna Sfard who found that learning and thinking are social processes. We learn the skills that make us who we are from observing, listening, and experimenting in social contexts. Workstations do not provide these kinds of interactions because the students are working on skills at their independent level.

The Common Core Standards are more rigorous which means that they require students to think more deeply about content that that of previous standards. This rigor can be viewed as a component of complex instruction. If students are working at a station for a large portion of the class time then students are not learning new information they are reviewing skills that have been previously taught and are not engaged in complex instruction. More often than not students that are not proficient with math skills are not completing station activity correctly  I witnessed this last school year when the instructional specialist visited my classroom during small group time and she noted that my students were solving the word problems incorrectly at the problem solving station even though the problems were differentiated to accommodate the students.

Group Roles and Responsibilities
Group Roles and Responsibilities

Next school year I plan to incorporate more flexible grouping group work for the independent practice portion of my lesson . I will start the students off in pairs  and then move to groups of 4 by December. I am anticipating that this will take a lot of work on my part because the students will be more accustomed to working stations because based on my experience the students viewed stations as playtime. The author of Smarter Together provides group roles and responsibilities for students while the students are working in groups of 4. The author also provides instructions on how to establish and teach group norms and responsibilities. This was most helpful to me because I have  group roles and responsibilities but they are more for middle school students.

I believe that workstations have their place in certain schools and grade levels but I believe that they do not work well with the students that I teach because they do not have the skills that are necessary to work independently without support from the teacher.

3 thoughts on “Work Stations a Help or a Hindrance to Teaching Problem Solving in Upper Elementary?”

  1. I’m curious to know how many stations you have set up during math block. Out math block is 90 minutes, but the 1st 30 minutes serves as intervention for spec ed or review of previous skills not mastered. The hour remaining is the math lesson. Do you do stations after your content has been taught? Do you plan to do stations based on the skill you just taught or would the station(s) be a review?

  2. Nicole Schuler

    I think work stations need to be done in partners or a group so they can help each other. I see small groups as extremely helpful, but the workstations the others are doing are difficult. I have problems with students doing absolutely nothing when they are not at my station. Their “excuse”- they didn’t understand. Really, they see it as play time. It is so hard to do small group and monitor the work stations. This is something I’ve been struggling with a lot. I know the workstations need to review things they already know, not what you are currently learning, otherwise they can’t do it without facilitation. But you still have a lot that will sit there and do absolutely nothing the entire time. But really, those are the same kids that sit there and do nothing in whole group too.

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