Current employment trends and future projections all point towards continued growth in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs, as well as the need for STEM-related skills in other fields. Yet, recent math proficiency levels among American students remain low, at just 44 percent in fourth grade and 33 percent at the eighth-grade level, and the math score trend lines are not showing significant improvement.
The attitudes of many students toward math are also not positive, and in order to improve those attitudes and actual math performance, David Woods, a senior director at Dreambox Learning, explained during a recent edWebinar how developing a strong math culture can engage students in authentic and effective learning, and result in increased achievement.
Using a problem-solution approach, Woods outlined a number of the challenges educators face when teaching math, and he explained training and planning strategies designed to address those issues. He also identified classroom techniques teachers can use to help students improve their math performance and attitudes.
Preparing to build a strong math culture
Surveys have shown that it’s not only the students who may have a negative attitude toward math. Many K-5 teachers perceived themselves as being “bad” at math, and therefore may have their own “math anxiety” when trying to teach the subject. This can impact the effectiveness of their instruction, as well as the cues they may transmit to students, thereby perpetuating the same feelings, attitudes, and achievement levels.
In this way, teachers are a product of the system they now need to change, especially if they have been taught that math is a series of steps and procedures, and the focus should be on memorizing one right way to determine the correct answer. Instead, Woods recommends a professional learning and planning approach that engages educators in active learning, which they can then share and perpetuate in the classroom to improve overall math culture.
Key aspects of this approach to math instruction include recognizing that mathematicians explore and discover solutions, rather than just follow directions, and there can be more than one way to come up with the right answer. Math educators need to be allowed to experience these types of processes for themselves, so they are comfortable with them and can guide students through similar processes.
The planning for math instruction also needs to leave room for firsthand experience with diverse students’ learning patterns, not just high-stakes test scores and textbook-driven pacing calendars. By including strategies and activities that engage students in authentic learning and leave time for creative problem solving, educators are likely to find that understanding of the subject matter improves, along with achievement levels.
Sustaining a strong math culture in the classroom
By getting to know their students as math learners, teachers can identify individual strengths and weaknesses, and provide more targeted learning experiences that enable diverse students to succeed. This includes establishing a collaborative classroom in which students are encouraged to discuss, experiment, and take risks when trying to solve math problems, without fear of being demeaned by the teacher or fellow students.
To make the learning meaningful and relevant, Woods recommends celebrating a diverse collection of historical figures and sharing anecdotes related to math and other STEM topics. Working on problems based in the real world also engages students, especially if there are potentially useful applications that can have a genuine impact.
And in order to build on what students already know and then enable them to make continued progress, educators should be intentional with their use of numbers and processes. Problems can be constructed so that students are guided to solutions by first activating prior knowledge and then applying strategies to increasingly complex subject matter.
Noting that “what gets measured is what gets discussed,” Woods recommends including students’ questions, ideas, discussion points, and effort in their evaluations, which can then be used to inform further instruction. And he recommends thinking first about the big ideas students should understand and then working backwards from there, so that students develop a deeper understanding of math they will then be able to apply in new ways during their future careers.
About the presenter
David Woods is the senior director of curriculum and reporting at DreamBox Learning. He earned a BA in elementary education with endorsements in reading and middle-level mathematics and a minor in Spanish from Whitworth University, as well as a master’s degree in integrating technology in the classroom from Walden University before joining the DreamBox Curriculum team. Throughout his teaching career, David reviewed new curricula, interpreted assessment data, and was a leading member of his professional reading community of math teachers. For the last six years he has been a curriculum designer at DreamBox Learning, currently serving as the senior director of curriculum and reporting, where he can apply his passion for building an effective individualized math curriculum.
Join the community
Building Understanding in Mathematics is a free professional learning community on edWeb.net that provides a platform, advice and support in helping educators learn methods that help students build understanding in mathematics.
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