Student-Centered Mathematics

Infuse student-centered teaching practices into math instruction

About Student-Centered Mathematics

Any time math classrooms are depicted on television or in movies, a dry, monotoned teacher drones on at the front of the room about complicated equations, while students daydream or silently complete a worksheet. This old-fashioned stereotype of a math classroom, though certainly fictionalized and outdated, reflects the reality that, more than any other subject, mathematics tends to be the one that students say they "don't like" or "aren't good at." In many of these classrooms, although students are technically "doing math," they are given a prescribed, rote approach to problem-solving, and they are told what to memorize and how to think by their teacher.

Fortunately, recent developments in mathematics instruction towards student-centered models have turned this stereotypical math classroom on its head. Rather than structuring each lesson with a standard lecture and independent student practice, student-centered math teachers are transforming mathematics classrooms into stimulating and engaging learning environments in which students participate enthusiastically in deep understanding, problem solving, critical thinking, and communication.

Student-centered mathematics instruction supports the idea that true mathematical proficiency involves more than rote application of mathematical algorithms. To be proficient in mathematics, students must be able to apply mathematics concepts to real-world concepts, use mathematical reasoning to understand and explain the "why" as well as the "how," choose how to demonstrate their understanding or solve a problem, clearly communicate their mathematical thinking, and persist in solving complex mathematical problems that can be solved in multiple ways beyond the rote application of procedures. Student-centered mathematics instruction engages all students through creativity, exploration, and collaboration.

In order to create mathematics learning environments that support students, teachers must re-think their approach to instruction in order to ensure that students are doing the heavy cognitive lifting by facilitating student thinking, discourse, and complex problem-solving.

Why It's Important

Great math teachers know that the skills - both content-specific and non-cognitive - taught in mathematics classrooms will improve their students' understanding of the world and prepare them for success in college and their careers. Unfortunately, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), math proficiency levels are very low among students in the United States. In 2017, only 40% of fourth-grade students and 34% of eighth-grade students performed at or above the Proficient level on the mathematics assessment.

Fortunately, student-centered mathematics instruction has been shown to significantly improve students' problem-solving skills, value-added assessment scores, and engagement (Walters et al. 2014). By implementing targeted student-centered instructional practices, math teachers can transform their classrooms so that students take charge of their own learning, receive personalized support, and make meaningful connections to the world around them - all through rigorous mathematics.

What Success Looks Like

In classrooms where mathematics instruction is student-centered, students are:

  • Working on rich, engaging, open-ended problems and answering teacher and student-posed questions that require critical thought and complex mathematical reasoning

  • Explaining and justifying their thinking via academic discussion and a variety of mathematical representations

  • Solving math problems using multiple approaches, and applying their math skills to new concepts and unfamiliar applications

  • Sharing their thinking with peers and critiquing others' mathematical thinking and reasoning in order to make connections and explore mathematical concepts

  • Receiving ongoing feedback on their mathematical thinking as they engage in a productive struggle with mathematics

Featured Strategies

Fill in the gaps supports students to review assessment data and set goals for improvement over two days in which they work to fill the gaps
Fill in the gaps supports students to review assessment data and set goals for improvement over two days in which they work to fill the gaps
2,4,6,8 Collaborative Problem-Solving supports students to engage in independent and collaborative thinking to effectively problem solve
2,4,6,8 Collaborative Problem-Solving supports students to engage in independent and collaborative thinking to effectively problem solve
This strategy supports student pairs to coach one another through problems and questions
This strategy supports student pairs to coach one another through problems and questions

Growth Areas

BetterLesson growth areas are targeted goals for growth in a learning domain through BetterLesson Coaching. Learn more about BetterLesson Coaching.
I pose purposeful questions and facilitate student discourse to promote reasoning and problem solving
I elicit and use evidence of student thinking to give ongoing and constructive feedback to students
I use mathematical representations to deepen conceptual understanding and as tools for problem solving
My students use both mathematical representations and academic language to show and explain their thinking
My students utilize an appropriate strategy to solve and persevere through challenging math tasks

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