4 Ways to Build Student-Centered Math Lessons
Teachers offer lessons, students work through problems individually or in groups, or they may be asked questions or take a quiz to demonstrate mastery, and teachers correct or affirm responses in traditional math classes.
On the surface, it appears to be a straightforward, rational teaching method in which the teacher “starts with an instructional aim and then constructs a session with the goal of students exhibiting proficiency,” as educators Sam Rhodes and Christopher R. Gareis write for ASCD’s In Service. However, they claim that this technique “relegates equity to an afterthought,” thus situating many pupils as passive viewers of mathematics. This passive positioning has an impact on students’ math identities over time, especially for students from diverse backgrounds who may already struggle to connect classroom learning to their own life experiences, Rhodes and Gareis write, creating a “sense of disinterest, inadequacy, and disenfranchisement.”
They feel that a more equitable form of math instruction begins with the instructor thinking first about students’ ideas about arithmetic throughout the lesson design process, with the teacher evaluating their comfort level with language or how they regard themselves academically and as mathematicians. “We cannot put student identities last,” write Rhodes and Gareis, who are both assistant professors of primary math education at Georgia Southern University and professors of educational leadership at William and Mary. “Rather, we need to think about what dispositional outcomes we want students to have,” she says, and then develop curricula backwards, keeping “equity and sense of self” in mind, so that more kids see themselves as capable math thinkers.
When creating student-centered math classes, keep the following four points in mind.
DEVELOP A CLEAR MISSION STATEMENT
Consider writing a vision statement for your school’s math curriculum that explains “what teaching mathematics should look and feel like in the school,” according to Rhodes and Gareis. This is a straightforward technique to “codify the values and identities that [teachers] hope to instil in students.”
For example, the mission statement could emphasise the importance of cultivating a community of learners “who are viewed as doers of mathematics” and set a goal for each student to “grow and communicate deeper understandings of mathematics through flexible thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving.”
CONNECT TO STUDENTS’ EXPERIENCE
Children are naturally drawn to investigate the math in their environment. “Even before we have the terms for it, we measure, notice patterns, and challenge the equivalence of things,” explain Rhodes and Gareis. “As we grow older, these informal learning chances become inextricably linked to our personal and cultural identities.” Drawing on these experiences in the classroom can help teachers “develop mathematical understandings that are organically tied to their students’ lives.”
While not everything in the math curriculum can directly relate to students’ life experiences, it’s important to plan lessons that include more connection points for students in your classroom—much like a well-curated classroom library would include a diverse range of options that reflect students’ diverse tastes, cultural backgrounds, reading levels, and specific interests.
Kwame Sarfo-Mensah, a seventh-grade math teacher, is planning a unit in which students study a topic of interest. It’s an attempt, he says, to help pupils “make sense of the reality in which we live” while also connecting them more profoundly to mathematics. He begins the class by conducting a survey to determine the students’ areas of interest. The responses led to a three-week research in Boston that looked at the interaction of law enforcement and communities of colour.
Sarfo-Mensah assisted students in developing a focus question and brainstorming the various math-related data points required to investigate it—statistics, graphical representations, geometric diagrams, and functional relationships—while also ensuring that the work was aligned with the appropriate academic standards. He gave pupils three options for their final work, writing that this provided “several access points for diverse learners.”
ALLOW FOR MULTIPLE SOLVING PATHWAYS
Teachers frequently “present numerous approaches to answer the same problem and encourage kids to come up with their own innovative ways to solve them” in vibrant math classrooms, notes Matthew Beyranevand, a K–12 math and science department coordinator for Massachusetts Public Schools. “The more tactics and approaches children are exposed to, the better conceptual knowledge of the issue they will get.”
Encourage students to develop alternate solutions when they solve an issue using a single method, then discuss the other choices as a class. It’s a subtle adjustment that emphasises critical thinking and encourages students to ask questions and share strategies as a means to make sense of difficult material. “Whereas a concentration on [correct or incorrect] responses leads in judgments of accuracy,” Rhodes and Gareis write, “a focus on thinking creates and refines understandings from what students know and understand.”
ENCOURAGE PRODUCTIVE STRUGGLE
Allowing pupils to struggle productively as they seek to answer hard problems is an important component of arithmetic. According to Rhodes and Gareis, “sends the message that the teacher feels students are capable of doing and creating mathematics.”
Solenne Abaziou, a high school math teacher, provides weekly open-ended arithmetic exercises called issue solvers—problems like Dice in a Corner and Snowmen Buttons—in order to improve her students’ problem-solving skills and stamina. “Students frequently struggle with persistence—they are hesitant to try a solution if they are unsure that it will provide the desired results, which drives them to avoid taking chances,” Abaziou adds. “Assisting pupils in overcoming their fear will give them a significant advantage in math and many other areas of life.”
According to Abaziou, an effective problem solver “has a low floor and a high ceiling.” “To allow weaker students to engage with the topic, the skills required should be limited, but it should include various degrees of complexity to challenge high-flying students.” Students should be “confused at first, which pushes them to struggle until they find a path that will likely take them to the solution” when they engage with the challenge. Students can only develop “problem-solving resilience” by working past their first frustration, she argues.
According to Rhodes and Gareis, all students are capable of doing math. “We feel that allowing student voices and experiences to shine in mathematics courses is a critical step toward rehumanizing the subject,” they write.