Google Drawings for Collaborative Problem Solving

This article first appeared in Fractus Learning on May 23rd, 2013.

Last week I was sick and needed a way to model problem-solving with my students from home. We are in the midst of a unit on multi-step equations which is the last stepping stone before the end of the year and Algebra 1. I wanted a way that I could talk my students through inverse operations and balancing both sides of an equation. In the past, I've used construction paper cut-outs and white boards, but the situation called for something more innovative.

Starting with a multi-step equation with components in text boxes.
Starting with a multi-step equation with components in text boxes.

The collaborative sharing nature of Google apps can give an entire class access to a single document. This also applies to a Google drawing, which has great applications for the math class. In the example above, I started the class with a multi-step problem with the equation at the top and the components needed in the problem solving process below. I asked students to:
  • Make like terms the same color with the "fill paint" icon.
  • Balance both sides of the equation using the inverse operations.
  • Make the components that separated terms one color. (plus and minus signs)
  • Indicate the icon that signified the fulcrum of the equation (equal sign)
  • Drag boxes up underneath the equation to indicate how they would solve the problem.

Working together, students were able to identify like and unlike terms and balance an equation.  
Based on the success of this problem, I chose to use Google drawings for subsequent lessons for small group instruction and remediation. Using the simple scribble tool I was able to write up some pretty basic inequalities and give access to the students in order to help guide the problem solving process.
Sample multistep problem that all students can access
Working in teams, students could apply the process of balancing an equation with inverse operations to solve for the missing variable and graphing it on the number line. Although some students were ready for independent practice, some needed 3-4 examples before they felt comfortable doing it on their own.
The finished product
I think Google drawings are the most undervalued application in the Google arsenal of learning tools and they have great possibilities as a formative assessment tool. The accessibility and editing rights of drawings allows for a number of interesting projects that I'm just starting to explore. In addition to working collaboratively on one problem as a class, I've also facilitated a number of activities that have supported learning through a variety of ways such as:
  • Having groups make a copy of a drawing and solve problems on their own or as part of an extension activity outside of class.
  • Group investigations of problem solving strategies. For example, posting a problem and asking one group to show how you could draw a picture to visualize it, another group to state the problem, another group to eliminate unnecessary information and another group to make a table to organize information.
  • Writing a story that would exemplify the problem in a real world setting.
  • Differentiating problems through blooms taxonomy hierarchy for mixed ability classrooms.
  • Linking such problems to the student's blogs as part of their their learning portfolio, because let's face it: who keeps worksheets or their math notebook at the end of the year?


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