A Communication Challenge

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SWBAT communicate verbally about mathematics in order to solve a group challenge. SWBAT examine and begin to understand group dynamics.

Big Idea

What's so important about communicating and working together? Students explore what it means to communicate in math class in order to solve a group challenge.


10 minutes

I begin by explaining to students that the purpose of today's activity is to look at group processes and roles within groups.  I let students know that one goal of our class (all year long) is to establish patterns of teamwork based on cooperation and respect for the contributions of others.

Next, I have students brainstorm about the importance of teamwork. I might post a question like:

Why is teamwork important in the workplace?

I will make sure to use a prompt that feels relevant to my current class. I might substitute 'world' or 'country' for workplace.  Then, I let students share freely while I jot down their ideas in a word web on the board.


Teacher Note: As a teacher, you may be concerned about devoting an entire class period to a group exercise that is not necessarily mathematically related to Algebra.  This activity gives students the time to think about why group work is important and allows them the opportunity to take a close look at themselves and their own group in the context of a math class.  I find taking the time for this activity can help create a shared language around group work in  my class and get help students set norms for group work moving forward.  I highly recommend this activity!


30 minutes

Now it's time for students to take on the Lonesome Llama challenge.  I have used the Lonesome Llama game in the IMP math curriculum (page 13, Year 1 textbook) for many years, but alternative activities that accomplish similar goals are readibly available on the WWW. Who's Going to the Concert? is one alternative. 

Lonesome Llama

The basic idea behind the Lonesome Llama game is that students receive a bunch of cards that have geometric houses on them with different features.  The cards differ slightly in many ways.  Some cards have one match, others have more than one match. One card in the deck is different from all the others, but it can be hard to find because the differences between cards are subtle.  This game requires ALL students in each group to participate.  It requires students to communicate quite a bit with each other in order to find the card that has no match (the singleton).

I create the groups that students will work in before class and have them posted.  I find that groups of between 4 and 6 students work best for this activity.  I carefully preview the rules of the game before handing out the cards. I like to have the rules posted on the SmartBoard and give each student a copy. I make sure to read through the rules as a class.  After we read the rules aloud, I re-emphasize the following points:  

  • Students may NOT, at any time, look at each other's cards
  • Students may NOT place cards in a common pile
  • Students should all agree when the group has found the Lonesome Llama.

Let the game begin!

Who's Going to the Concert?

In this activity, which I find to be a little easier than Lonesome Llama, students must communicate in order to determine which students will be attending an upcoming concert. The key piece to either activity is that students reflect on their group problem solving and identify strategies and behavior that may help or hinder them.


Teaching Note: I encourage you to try out the game with some other teachers or friends before you give it to your students.  This will help you get a sense of how important it is to let students solve the problem on their own.  Please resist all urges you have to help students to any systems  you think might help them keep track of their work. This important work for them to do themselves.



Discussion and Reflection

20 minutes

I make sure to leave at least ten minutes at the end of class to discuss the successes and challenges each group experienced. Then, we reflect as a whole group on the activity.

In preparation for this discussion, as groups finish the game, I ask students to write about the following question individually:

  • What makes a group work well together?

I moderate the final discussion carefully and mindfully. Some students/groups may be feeling sensitive about not completing the activity.  I am careful not to let some students blame others. I try to keep the focus on the group and how the group did or did not work well together.

Some points I like to try to bring out for a group that was successful:

  • How did your group work together?
  • What strategies did they use? 
  • Did they use a system to find the Lonesome Llama? How did they develop that system?
  • Did your groups system (or strategy) change during the game?

For a group that was not able to find the Lonesome Llama, I might ask them:

  • What was working well in their group? 
  • What would you change if you played the game again?  
  • How did your group communicate with each other? 
  • What things led to frustration during the game?

I like to spend some time talking about the difference between students who are quiet and students who are sponges. I find that students often think a quiet student is just "sponging" off other students and not pulling their weight in a group.  I encourage students to think about ways that people can participate without talking a lot.  I ask them to be careful about how they characterize others, and recognize that someone who is quiet may be participating more fully than someone who is loud.  Of course, with that said, sometimes student do sponge off other students in the context of group work. I find acknowledging this up front helps to diffuse the issue.  




I like to give students a Lonesome Llama Homework Assignment so they can reflect more fully on this exercise.  I particularly like these homework questions because they focus on what an individual can do to improve a group experience, rather than putting a lot of group dynamics outside the realm of a participant's influence.


Program, I. (2008, June 3). Lonesome Llama. Retrieved from the Connexions Web site: http://cnx.org/content/m15961/1.3/

Who's Going to the Concert? Adapted from Rachel A. Poliner, & Carol Miller Lieber, The Advisory Guide (Massachusetts: Educators for Social Responsibility, 2004).