How can I actually get my math students to think?

Math ClassAs the STEM Coordinator here at OCM BOCES, I am often asked by teachers and instructional leaders, “How can I actually get my math students to think?  When can math turn into more than steps, procedures, and correct answers?”  I came across some very helpful information from Tabitha Savage, who happens to be a math instructional coach in several schools in Tennessee.  She shares ways in which teachers can increase student participation and depth of understanding by only making a few slight changes to any mathematical concept.  These ideas are: get kids talking, get students writing, and let students struggle.  Seems simple right?  Anyone who has ever taught in a math classroom knows that implementation is so much easier said than done.  Here are some further descriptions of these three strategies that Tabitha shares, that I feel are great suggestions, and worth trying out in your math classroom.  What have you got to lose?

  • Get Students Talking
    Chances are you are doing most of the talking and communicating in your classroom.  You are the one who is thinking aloud and giving explanations. Make your classroom and discussions centered on your students’ conversations. Our students should be the ones explaining, sharing thoughts or possible solutions. Stop explaining EVERYTHING and start asking guiding questions to really allow your students to critically think for themselves!  This is not an easy task, and definitely requires planning, and quick thinking as well.  Guide your questioning so that students are able to discover the answers on their own. Some students are not comfortable leading discussion, so help them along with some leading prompts:

    • This is true because …
    • Other possible solutions might be …
    • The most important piece of information is …
    • The clue words I found important are … and they tell me …
    • I found the solution by using the following strategies …
    • This is what I understand …
  • Get Students Writing
    Many times in math the focus is on digits and symbols, but students need to express their mathematical ideas through writing too. Give students a real world problem and ask them to explain their process or justify their answer. If we want to move students deeper into mathematical concepts and practices, it is imperative that we ask them to write! We need a way to examine the depth of student understanding.  What better way to do this than by viewing their written explanations and thoughts!
  • Let Students Struggle
    There’s value in identifying a problem and finding a solution on your own. Often, we are very quick to give students the answer for a variety of reasons. Give your students time to struggle and make mistakes. Give them a chance to collaborate with peers. By taking away their struggles, they may miss out on important self-discoveries. The process might be more important than the product!

No one expects math teaching to change instantly.  There are so many new things happening, and it feels as though it all is happening quickly!  Start small, and make focused changes to your math classroom practices.


One thought on “How can I actually get my math students to think?

  1. When talking about Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM) in education, we need more precise descriptions of WHAT the topic content matter is, what we DO in these disciplines, and how we APPLY it to the world around us. When I refer to “STEM” as a “table of contents”, I also recognize that the artistic methods of visualizing, writing, and finding context in culture and history are important to the process and procedures of “doing science”. So, put into the standard sentence structure, the “STEM content” is the subject, the “artistic method” is the verb, and the “real-world application” is the object.

    What we need, I believe, is a comprehensive, modularized curriculum framework, beginning with the STEM content delivered in high schools and colleges. The content of each module and lesson would be prepared by “experts”, and then packaged by instructional technologists using “best practices” for effective learning with interactive multimedia, and finally presented using open-source, online delivery channels.

    The content modules within this framework would have the STEM topics arranged in a sequence using a systems approach as one dimension. A second dimension would then be a tag or label that clearly identifies the “Basic Workplace Skill Set” needed for successful entry into several occupational levels, starting with “Home & Consumer” to “User/Operator”  and so on to “Engineer”, and “Scientist”.

    Connections with the Communication, Social, and Cultural Arts (CSCA) would be specified with the appropriate techniques, methods, and practices used in the six occupational skill levels. These processes and activities would be developed in collaboration with specialists from non-STEM areas.

    The grid would then be expanded and cross-connected with Career & Technical Education (CTE) pathways, so students could select applications and projects relevant to their career interests and preferences.

    Such a framework, then, would allow students to pursue their own pathways through the multi-dimensional learning space of possibilities along the three content, skill level, and career directions. They would also meet required standards by touching certain “milestones” along the way,. There would be flexibility to participate in collaborative classroom projects, while stepping up the proficiency ladder to advanced and related topics at their own pace, using online resources.

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