When test scores revealed students’ lack of number sense, this district explored a strategy-based approach to a growth mindset in math, like this number 10 countdown.

#10: How we created a growth mindset in math


When standardized test scores revealed students’ lack of number sense, one district examined its instructional practices and set out to explore a strategy-based approach to teaching number sense

[Editor’s note: This story, originally published on April 17th of this year, was our #10 most popular story of the year. Happy holidays, and thank you for tuning into our 2019 countdown!]

Historically, students have been led to believe that they are either destined to be good at math or that they just “aren’t a math person.” At Springfield (MO) Public Schools, we wanted all of our students to feel empowered as mathematicians. Through Jo Boaler’s research, we were able to identify key changes that needed to take place in order for that to happen in our district.

Our approach to teaching mathematics began as a journey toward equity in math class. We began focusing on conceptual understanding, strategy-based fluency through number talks and open tasks that support multiple entry points and solutions. In the past, much of our math instruction was focused on procedural rules that didn’t allow students to build flexibility with numbers. Despite the constant focus on fact retrieval, teachers continued to note that students didn’t have mastery of basic facts year after year, and it showed in our standardized test scores. We began offering professional development around strategy-based fact practice and eradicated time testing from our classrooms.

Related content: How our district is making math relevant

Last year we implemented a workshop model to support the need for differentiating instruction in K-5 classrooms. We modified that structure this year to include whole-group problem-solving days, in which educators facilitated productive struggle and the class worked heterogeneously and dived deeply into problems that were more inquiry- or visual-based.

Turning math class into a conversation

One of our district components for math workshops was a numerate environment. There was a misconception that a numerate environment was the visibility of math tools, literature, and anchor charts. Our vision for a numerate environment was one that fosters a classroom full of collaboration and discourse. We wanted to hear students actively sharing ideas, thinking deeply about mistakes, and connecting their ideas and strategies to those of others.

We looked for structures that promoted these goals and math talks was a natural fit. In her book Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching, Boaler writes that opening up the conversation around math is the single best way to increase number sense.

Last year, we offered professional development to teachers through after school workshops, in service days, and summer learning opportunities. We purchased Number Talks by Sherry Parrish for our teachers and facilitated learning about number strings by having teachers engage in math talks as students.

As teachers began to implement the structure in their classrooms, feedback indicated that they wanted a framework that clearly laid out which strategies they should be focused on at their grade level and how to facilitate them easily. That’s when we found and purchased Daily Math Fluency from hand2mind to help educators easily and effectively guide math talks with students. This allowed our teachers the framework they were looking for to be intentional about math talks in their classrooms.

We set aside time for students to share their strategies in the classroom. We focused on providing adequate think time, using structures for equal participation like those from Kagan Cooperative Learning, and providing opportunities for students to revise their thinking.

Related: The 4 simple misconceptions that can derail early math education

Students were suddenly comfortable exploring the multiple ways a math problem can be solved with the entire class. When students made mistakes, they were able to recognize in real time how others got the right answer. They were comfortable voicing their disagreement with incorrect strategies in a sensitive way, while teaching each other how one problem can be solved in multiple ways. Students were seeing their misconceptions addressed immediately instead of having to wait for a teacher’s feedback.

Choosing visual tools to promote number sense

For us, math talks have been one of the vehicles that allow students to own their learning. We loved the visual nature of seeing relationships between dot patterns, ten frames, and open arrays. We felt that students were provided the support that was needed to have deep discussions about math concepts.

Now, when teachers say, “It’s time to do math talks,” students are excited to share their strategies and the classroom is abuzz with mental math strategies. Thanks to these new methods, our teachers have seen student engagement increase. We’ve seen a 2- to 3-percent increase in our standardized assessment in math from December of 2017 to December 2018 for every grade in K-5 and every subgroup. It’s been a joy getting such positive feedback from teachers. Students not only feel engaged, but also successful.

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