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Blog Redefining Math Instruction for School Leaders

Redefining Math Instruction for School Leaders

Think back to your K-12 experience and what a typical math class looked like and sounded like. If you’re like us, the first things that probably come to mind are timed tests, fast fact flashcards, and worksheet after worksheet of practice problems - essentially, many hours spent practicing algorithms and computation. In comparison, what skills do students need to learn to be successful when they leave our classrooms? Teachers often say that students now need to be able to solve complex problems, think critically, and communicate effectively.

In our work as Carnegie Learning MathCounts Specialists, we have the opportunity to support teachers and leaders in redefining math instruction in the School District of Philadelphia. Together we are working to support students to engage with math rather than simply just do the math. Ultimately, we’re excited to share several tips to help you as school leaders as you work to shift math instruction in your buildings to meet new expectations.

1. Understand That The Game Has Changed

Before we can redefine math, we must accept that there are new expectations for what students must know and be able to do. Common Core State Standards are preparing students for a new world. As a result, we need to be clear about what math is and what it is not. Math is not a set of facts and algorithms to be memorized and regurgitated. Math is about relationships. Math can be represented in many different ways. Math is messy. We need to embrace these realities on our journey to redefine math.

The math vision for your school should reflect the new expectations of the standards and what students will need for their futures. Rigorous doesn’t mean more challenging; it means that math lessons pursue conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, and application with equal intensity. It means students can flexibly and accurately problem solve, not just memorize facts. Math instruction should make students think.

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2.  Challenge the “I’m Not a Math Person” Philosophy

“I’m not a math person” is an all-too-common excuse utilized by many adults and educators alike. For various reasons, perhaps a bad experience in class as a child, a parent’s anxiety, or being generally overwhelmed, many adults have developed an apprehension around math.  Regardless of why people have developed their phobia, we need to embrace math readily in order to ensure that students see themselves as capable and confident mathematicians. As human beings, we have the innate ability to comprehend the use of numbers and use math everyday to solve real world problems.

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3. Re-Structure Math Class

If we want to develop students’ problem solving and communication skills, we need to give them time and space to interact with, explore, and solve complex problems. While there often is a right answer in math, the subject is really about considering different strategies and reasoning, rather than just getting the answer.  

Flipping instruction upside down and starting with the “you do” allows students to engage with a problem and explore different strategies and approaches. Incorporating number sense routines is another great way to put students in the driver’s seat and allow kids to work together to explore multiple pathways and ways of thinking.

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4. Support Teachers to Redefine Mathematics Instruction

William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” This reminds us that great math teachers are those who structure learning opportunities in ways that allow students to engage with concepts and strategies to learn content. This means considering standards and the Standards for Mathematical Practice when planning and executing tasks.

While it is important for teachers to plan and deliver great math instruction, ultimately the true measure for success lies in students’ ability to problem solve and think flexibly. Shift your thinking by asking yourself, "Are teachers meeting the mark in getting students to be proficient in understanding content, skills, and math practices?" Math isn’t about tests and right answers, but about thinking and problem solving. In order to support teachers to make this a reality, we need to ensure that we are referencing resources that align with these expectations for teaching and learning. The Standards for Math Practices, TNTP Core Rubric, and NCTM Task Analysis Guide are great starting points for helping to redefine how we support teachers.

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5. Develop Yourself

Now that we all know to identify as “math people” - or at least embrace that you’re on a journey to become one - you have to sharpen your skills. Whether you want to practice doing math by seeing everything your curriculum has to offer or by trying your hand at some low floor-high ceiling problems, the first step is to try. Then try again. Then try a different way. Invite some friends along as thought partners so you can discuss your thinking, compare strategies, and question each other about problem solving. Break out manipulatives and colored pencils to represent and model scenarios in different ways.

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In conclusion, we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to redefine what math classrooms look like. Our students’ future may look very different from today’s world, so we must prepare students with both the knowledge and the skills to be successful no matter what the unknown may bring. It is our mission as educators to create classroom environments that produce math-confident children. We just need to believe in ourselves first as math-confident educators. Let’s work together to redefine math.

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