Student writes math problem.

Caitlin MacLeod-Bluver March 30, 2022

Student-Centered Math Conversations for More Engaged Learners

Caitlin MacLeod-Bluver

BetterLesson Instructional Coach

Being a math teacher is hard. Many students will quickly tell you that math is their least favorite subject. Classes are often large and filled with students at many different levels. And this year, more than other years, terms such as “learning loss” and “learning recovery” infiltrate every aspect of teaching. There is no doubt that there is a lot on the plates of math teachers.

Yet, despite these challenges, a  student-centered math classroom makes math learning engaging. Small shifts in instruction can create a more student-centered math environment, which can create more powerful learning opportunities for students. This shift does not have to feel like another burden but rather an approach to math to increase student-engagement and foster a strong learning environment.

What is student-centered math? And why does it matter?

One teacher I coached this fall was hesitant to make a shift to a more student-centered math classroom. “How can I do this when I have so much new content to teach?” was a frequent refrain that I heard. Yet, we slowly built in small shifts in his classroom practice to allow students to engage in meaning-making and persist in productive struggle. The result was that students were talking about math and were more engaged in their math class. Fewer heads were down and more hands were up, eager to share their thinking and respond to their peers.

In a student-centered mathematics classroom, students connect mathematics to real-world ideas, communicate their mathematical thinking, and persevere in problem-solving. While these ideas may sound lofty, this can happen through small shifts in instructional practice. This is important because it not only helps to promote engagement, but it helps students to understand themselves as mathematicians.

How can I make the shift to student-centered math instruction? 

Build small opportunities for math discourse 

One of the defining features of a student-centered math classroom is students talking about math, making meaning together, and sharing how they solved a mathematical problem. One teacher I worked with started by simply allowing her daily Warm Up to take a full ten minutes. She gave students the opportunity to solve a problem individually then offered students a chance to turn and talk about their work with a partner. She provided sentence starters for this partner conversation and walked around to listen to students as they shared. She then orchestrated a quick share-out discussion where students shared how they or their partner solved the problem. Check out these resources in the Number Talks strategy to learn more.

Another teacher I worked with this fall leaned heavily into the I Notice, I Wonder strategy. He started by teaching the strategy using non-math examples. Slowly, he built in simple math examples, encouraging students to share their noticings and questions. For students that needed additional support, he had an anchor chart in his room with sentence starters to help prompt students to create “wonderings.” When students got the hang of this strategy, he slowly connected the task to the daily learning target. Sometimes he would project an example student’s attempt at solving a mathematical task and students would notice a common error that the student made. Other times, he would share visuals to help with an upcoming task. Because students were familiar with the strategy, over time he saw a large increase in the amount of student talk.

Help students persevere in problem solving 

In my own math classroom, I saw a rise in students’ willingness to take on challenging tasks when they recognized that they had been successful before. So often, as teachers, we see student growth, but students do not see their own growth. I began to build in weekly mathematical reflections where students reflected on a moment during the week where they overcame a challenge in the math classroom. Over time, students saw challenges as an opportunity for them to persevere. It truly felt like the energy of the room shifted in the course of a few weeks.

One of the challenges I have seen most when it comes to “productive” struggle in a math classroom is that sometimes the content may really be too difficult for the student to access. In order for the struggle to be productive and for the student to eventually be successful, some scaffolding must be put into place so that the student can be met at their zone of proximal development. In the strategy Visual Representations to Support Students to Solve Complex Math Problems, the teacher anticipates where students will struggle before the lesson, creates a graphic organizer to support student sense-making, and then allows the student to persevere through the problem with support.

Connect math to the real world

“When will I ever need this math?” is a question that every math teacher has heard, probably multiple times. Helping students to see the connection between what they are learning in class and why it is relevant to their lives is a key to a student-centered math classroom. A teacher that I have worked with in the past began to build in time during her daily exit ticket for students to reflect on when and how the math they learned that day would be useful in their lives. She gave students “extra points” for unique and creative responses.

Although the shift to a more student-centered math classroom may initially sound like one more thing being asked of teachers during an already difficult time, the reality is that small shifts in instructional practice can yield big results.If you build time for students to talk about their thinking, to reflect on their own progress in class, and to make connections to the real-world, students are bound to become more engaged in class.