The 2019–20 school year was unlike any other, and there is uncertainty about what teaching and learning will look like this fall. School closures this spring caused students to miss important learning opportunities in mathematics, and educational inequities and unfinished learning have become more pronounced.

While educators are eager to provide a welcoming, coherent instructional experience when students return to school, there are concerns about the impact of unfinished learning. One reaction may be to jam in more topics and cover both the grade-level content and what may have been missed the previous year. Another may be to assess students upon arrival and immediately try to fill in the unfinished learning or place students in remediation.

Related content: Putting unfinished learning back on track

As well-intentioned as these ideas may be, they can have a negative impact on students mentally, emotionally, and mathematically. We know that speeding up instruction to cover more topics does not lead to lasting understanding. We also know the importance of spending as much time as possible accessing grade-level mathematics. In addition, we know that student engagement is an important condition for learning mathematics — and in the COVID-19 era, it is more important than ever. It is the key to drawing in students who are anxious about unfinished learning.

Because most teachers will not have added days for additional lessons in 2020–21, decisions must be made about how to prioritize the major work of each grade and how to support students in accessing that content.

Here are three suggestions to help strike the right balance this fall.

Tackling unfinished learning in mathematics

1. Incorporate prior grade-level knowledge and skills, when necessary, to support access to current grade-level content.

Integrating prior grade-level content into the current grade level is challenging work. It includes supporting students’ well-being and emotional needs while maintaining the delicate balance of adding more things to teach and minding the number of days in the school year.

About the Author:

Dr. William G. McCallum is a Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, one of the lead writers for the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics, and the co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit organization Illustrative Mathematics (IM). Kate Nowak is the vice president of product strategy, Kristin Gray is the director of K–5 curriculum and professional learning, Kevin Liner is a K–5 professional learning lead, and David Petersen is a lead curriculum writer for IM. IM is the developer of IM Math, a problem-based core mathematics curriculum for grades K–12.


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