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Sunday, November 06, 2016

Math Debate:Teaching Students Who Struggle in Math

Debate arose as to how to teach students who struggle with grade-level expectations in math.

I have read about this and discussed this often with colleagues over the years.

First, why do students struggle with math?  There are many possible reasons including the following:
  • learning disposition
  • foundation of math concepts, knowledge, and skill
  • language barriers
  • teaching strategies, programs, and efforts
  • access and opportunity 
  • health
  • behavioral issues
  • environmental issues
  • neurodiversity and the way it is handled in schools/classrooms
When a child struggles in math, there's lots to consider with regard to how to help that child. In this regard, I think about the following questions:
  • What was the child's math learning history like? Has he/she had access to fluid learning with regard to math concepts, knowledge, and skill? Generally children who have the opportunity to build with blocks and legos, play Minecraft and similar math-friendly platforms, participate in number games, and learn in a steady fashion come to the grade level with good math skills, concept, and knowledge. If a child has had little access to good math learning, then I'll look for ways to fill in the gaps.
  • What is a child's attitude towards math learning and teaching like? If a child comes to class with poor self esteem and an unwillingness to learn, I'll think about that. I'll wonder why is he/she unwilling to participate in the class, and how can I make the teaching more accessible and user-friendly for that child.
  • Does the child have access to the tools, programs, and events that foster terrific math learning and engagement? If a child doesn't have access to the supports, tools, programs, and events that other children enjoy, I will look to provide that child with access. For example most of the children in our school have access to technology at home, but some do not. Our school is working to provide 100% access to technology for students as one way to lift math performance and engagement. 
  • Does the teaching/learning program invite the child into the learning? Is the program engaging and welcoming? My colleagues and I continually think about this question and redesign our program content and pedagogy to better welcome all children to the learning table. This work profits from our collective efforts, research, and creativity.
  • What supports does this child get and how can these supports assist the child with math learning? Many children who struggle with math get a lot of other supports such as English Language Learning support, Special Education, Occupational, Speech, or Physical Therapy Counseling and more. Often a child who struggles with math has a complex learning profile that includes many sensitive and important issues to consider.
  • Where is the child with regard to progressive concepts, math concepts that build on one another? I am in favor of a progressive approach to math learning and teaching rather than a grade-level standards approach. An approach like this helps all children to continue to build their math proficiency no matter where they fall on the progression from early learning to more sophisticated learning. Thankfully platforms like Khan Academy provide one avenue, an avenue that children who are ahead of grade level standards typically embrace. Saul Khan's recent Ted Talk also supports this approach. I believe schools can successfully apply this approach with creative collaboration and programming amongst all department members including regular education, special education, specialists, therapists, and more. The first step is to embrace a movement towards progressive math education rather than grade-by-grade education. I want to learn more about this and would love to see models of this in action. Of course, I'd also like to see Jo Boaler's research embedded into this progressive approach with the use of meaningful, rich, hands-on project/problem based learning that have the "floor-to-ceiling" scaffolding she promotes--scaffolding I've had the opportunity to witness and be inspired by. 
After considering these questions, I'll generally do the following:
  • Work with family members, colleagues, and educational support professionals to pool our resources to support a child well?
  • Analyze the supports in place to see if we can make the supports more engaging, targeted, and successful?
  • Talk to the child and let him/her participate in his/her math program planning and efforts? What does he/she thinks need to happen to help him/her learn math more and better.
  • Advocate for the child so he/she has access to similar supports, programs, and tools and his/her peers. The computer access mentioned above is one area of advocacy. Another could be the kind of homework/extra support a child receives to support his/her progression in this regard.
  • Look for ways to better engage a child so that he/she generally wants to continue the learning at home. When the way we learn is engaging, children naturally want to continue the learning. For example there are computer programs that are dry and dull and others that are exciting and inviting--the more we can offer students math learning programs that are exciting and inviting, the more they will want to play and the more they will learn. It's been difficult to convince some in the school environment of this notion.
  • Work to dispel the myths that some can learn math and others cannot.
  • Look for ways to provide the academic support needed to help a child succeed in math.
  • Work with colleagues to creatively design research-based programs to promote greater math learning and success. 
  • Design and implement teaching content, strategies, and tools that help children learn well.
Going forward as the debate continues, I'll listen carefully to all sides and consider what I can do on my own and with the greater teaching/learning team of students, families, educators, administrators, and citizens to make math learning and teaching accessible and successful for all children.

In the meantime, I welcome your ideas. Tell me what has worked in your learning/teaching sphere to uplift students who struggle in math and help them to master math knowledge, concept, and skill with success, meaning, and engagement. I want to know. Thank you!