How to Strengthen Math Instruction

How to Strengthen Math Instruction

Students’ math scores have plummeted, national assessments show, and educators are working hard to turn math outcomes around, according to Education Week.

It’s a challenge made harder by factors like math anxiety, students’ feelings of deep ambivalence about how math is taught, and learning gaps exacerbated by the pandemic’s disruption of schools.

Three educators offered solutions on how districts can turn around poor math scores in Education Week.

Here are three takeaways:

1. Intervention is key

Research shows that early math skills are a key predictor of later academic success.

“Children who know more do better, and math is cumulative—so if you don’t grasp some of the earlier concepts, math gets increasingly harder,” says Nancy Jordan, a professor of education at the University of Delaware.

For example, many students struggle with the concept of fractions, she says. Her research has found that by 6th grade, some students still don’t really understand what a fraction is, which makes it harder for them to master more advanced concepts, like adding or subtracting fractions with unlike denominators.

But teachers don’t always have the time in class to re-teach those basic or fundamental concepts, she says, making targeted intervention so important.

Jordan’s research reveals in some middle schools, intervention time is not a priority: “If there’s an assembly, or if there is a special event or whatever, it takes place during intervention time,” she said. “Or … the children might sit on computers, and they’re not getting any really explicit instruction.”

2. “Gamify” math class

Students today need new modes of instruction that meet them where they are, says Gerilyn Williams, a math teacher at Pinelands Regional Junior High School in Little Egg Harbor Township, N.J.

“Most of them learn through things like TikTok or YouTube videos,” she says. “They like to play games, they like to interact. So how can I bring those same attributes into my lesson?”

Gamifying instruction is part of her solution. Williams avoids worksheets. Instead, she provides opportunities for students to practice skills that incorporate elements of game design.

This includes digital tools, which provide students with the instant feedback they crave, she says.

Not all the games are digital. Williams’ students sometimes play “trashketball,” a game in which they work in teams to answer math questions. If they get the question right, they can crumble the piece of paper and throw it into a trash can from across the room.

Williams also incorporates game-based vocabulary into her instruction. For example, “instead of calling them quizzes and tests, I call them boss battles,” she says. “It’s less frightening. It reduces that math anxiety, and it makes them more engaging.

“We normalize things like failure, because when they play video games, think about what they’re doing,” Williams continues. “They fail—they try again and again and again and again until they achieve success.”

3. Strengthen teacher expertise

Districts need to invest in teacher professional development and curriculum support to turn around math outcomes, says Chaunté Garrett, the CEO of ELLE Education, which partners with schools and districts to support student learning.

“You’re not going to be able to replace the value of a well-supported and well-equipped mathematics teacher,” she says. “We also want to make sure that that teacher has a math curriculum that’s grounded in the standards and conceptually based.”

Students will develop more critical thinking skills and better understand math concepts if teachers are able to relate instruction to real life, Garrett says—so “kids have relationships that they can pull on, and math has some type of meaning and context to them outside of just numbers and procedures.”

Education Week

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