In order to learn math, students need to do math. Mathematical thinking and language result from productive mathematical problem-solving during which students have opportunities to develop conceptual mathematical understandings rooted in prior knowledge. To support this problem-based approach to math learning, the teaching role shifts to strategic planning for student growth by carefully selecting mathematical learning experiences, supporting sense-making using mathematical representations and student discourse, and anticipating and monitoring student learning.
Traditional math instruction that relies on procedural skills might provide short-term success, but for those students who do not gain an understanding of underlying mathematical concepts through procedural routines, failure and frustration are inevitable as the math becomes increasingly complex and abstract, beyond rote memorization of procedures.
Fortunately, recent developments in mathematics instruction and curriculum have shifted towards student-centered models. Rather than structuring each lesson with a standard lecture and independent student practice, student-centered mathematics teachers are transforming mathematics classrooms into stimulating and engaging learning environments in which students share their thinking and are supported to participate enthusiastically in deep understanding, problem solving, critical thinking, and communication.
In a student-centered mathematics classroom, students apply mathematics to real-world concepts, develop more than one strategy to represent, reason, and solve, use their own mathematical reasoning to show and explain the "why" as well as the "how," grow their understanding by clearly communicating their mathematical thinking, and persevere in problem-solving. Student-centered mathematics instruction engages all students through creativity, exploration, and collaboration.
In a student-centered math classroom, teachers do more than show, tell, and correct. Student-centered teachers focus on planning strategically by rooting new concepts in prior knowledge; anticipating common errors and misconceptions to plan probing questions; using visual and manipulative strategies to support sense making; carefully selecting purposeful tasks and student groupings; and choosing math discourse and instructional routines that support what is being learned and who is learning it. Student centered teachers personalize their support of students by providing students with knowledge of what they are learning, why they are learning it, where they are in their learning, and the means and supports to revise, improve, and achieve success.
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.