Monday, November 28, 2016

Teaching Math: A Progressive Approach

The department recognized that a grade-level approach to mastering the foundation skills, concepts, and knowledge for math did not work. The range of student development did not fit nicely into a grade-level box as standardized tests and expected standards suggested. Instead due to a range of circumstances, students learned the math foundation skills in a variety of ways.

Smartly, the department decided to broaden the way math was taught including the expected standards and this is what they did.

First, they created a continuum of skill from K-5 in each of the main math learning/teaching categories. These continuums were created using educators' research, experience, and observation. The goal was to move as many students as far as they could go on the continuum so by fifth grade most students would meet most standards with mastery.

Next they looked carefully how math was taught and by whom. The department maximized their resources so that children were taught well in well-sized groups with a variety of targeted, meaningful, and enriching learning experiences. Math time was divided into two strands. The first strand was number sense development. During this strand, multiple educators worked with strategically sized groups to advance each student's foundation in number sense. These groups met for 45 minutes each day to offer consistency and targeted instruction--instruction that met students developmental math needs.

The second strand was the "Jo Boaler" strand which represented meaningful, collaborative math investigations. This strand was provided to help students learn with mixed ability groups to solve meaningful, hands-on,  multi-disciplinary math problems. This math time mirrored the way math is used in the real world and was targeted on developing a brain-friendly, dynamic math experience for all children. This strand also met each day for 45 minutes to provide consistency to the approach. While still well staffed, the groups during this time of the day were a bit larger with less staff than the targeted, developmental number sense time of the day.

The state department of education responded well to this approach and actually changed their standardized test expectations to progressive tests rather than grade-level tests. This allowed students at all levels to continually test-up. This approach was particularly wonderful for students who traditionally fell below or above grade level expectations because it provided "just right" reach for everyone and reflected the reality of learning which is that no one is ever there, but instead every learner is always reaching for more and better. This served all students well.

Our old fashion, factory-like grade levels are less important in today's world. Yes, there remains some good social developmental reasons for grouping students according to grade, but with regard to good learning, self esteem, and community, it's not the only way. Instead we should look at multiple ways to group students to lead to best possible academic progression, self esteem, and collaborative communities of learners. Too often our grade-level groups give students false notions of "better," "smarter," "incapable," and more--the reality is that all students are capable of learning and that progression looks a bit different with every learner dependent on multiple reasons.

These ideas are rough now, but I will continue to work on them. Do you have a model like this in your school? If so, please direct me to it as I'd like to learn more and/or visit to see your model in action.