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 This old-fashioned stereotype of a math classroom, though certainly fictionalized and outdated, reflects the reality that, more than any other subject, mathematics tends to be the one that students say they "don't like" or "aren't good at."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
BetterLesson Blog Posts:
Bankston, Krystal. Let's Talk About Math: 5 Tips For Facilitating Productive Student Discourse in Math Classrooms. November 13, 2018
Kellam, Kim. How BetterLesson Coaching and the Open Up Resources Math Curriculum Made My Classroom More Student-Centered. January 15, 2019.
Lara, Juan. How Coaching Helped Me Make My Math and Science Classes More Student-Centered. December 12, 2018.
Nealeigh, Molly. Students Drive Their Learning: What Is A Mastery Based Learning System? July 31, 2018.
Nealeigh, Molly. The Building Blocks of a Mastery Based Learning System (Part 1). August 14, 2018.
Nealeigh, Molly. The Building Blocks of a Mastery Based Learning System (Part 2). August 21, 2018.
Wheeler, Laura. The Student-Centered Math Class. Edutopia. April 21, 2017.
Walters, Kirk et al. An Up-Close Look at Student-Centered Math Teaching. American Institutes for Research. November 2014.
Mead, Megan. Building Student-Centered High School Math Classrooms. Getting Smart. November 18, 2014.