Shifting Practices: Helping Everyone—from Students to Administration—Find their Voice in the Math Classroom

It was easy to say yes!

By Crystal Magers

Last spring, I was approached by our Math Coordinator and asked about piloting a new math program. I knew my staff was ready for building-wide consistency and we were ready to try something new. I easily said yes! 

My teachers were offered training over the summer and access to the resources to begin teaching this fall.

After just a few weeks of instruction, my staff began to voice concerns. 

  • For instance, the first unit in grade 4 covered several standards in the fraction domain—standards which weren’t typically taught until much later in the year. Teachers were fearful that students would have little success with such challenging material. 
  • When teachers were collecting formative assessment through the cool-downs, they were seeing very little mastery and were afraid their students were not learning the content.
  • Grade 5 started the year teaching volume, another set of standards that are typically taught much later in the year. Student performance on the end of unit test was much lower than it typically was.
  • Our teachers were used to teaching with a workshop model that allowed only a small portion of the math block to introduce a new skill at grade level in which much of the time was allocated to small group intervention. The staff’s concern was that there was no time to work with struggling students who were not able to apply concepts learned in whole group instruction. An advantage seen by teachers was that our most struggling students were exposed to grade-level concepts rather than always working at a lower skill level trying to close gaps. However, they felt that students still needed time to receive scaffolding on grade-level concepts to ensure student success. 

At that moment, I was feeling the weight of my decision to do a building-wide pilot with IM! I knew that in order to support my staff I had to see what they were seeing. I spent the next few weeks observing every grade level and classroom teaching IM. I quickly saw the difference in depth of knowledge of what our students were being asked to do. 

Over the past few years, we had spent time building capacity in teachers to become facilitators of mathematical discourse. That was the first thing I noticed! Conversations were happening between students that I had not witnessed in the past. I was able to see exactly what students were thinking. 

Much attention was spent on sharing student work and discussing strategies…and students were excited to share their thinking! Students who had typically been underrepresented in mathematical conversation were sharing their ideas and contributing to the conversation. Teachers could quickly form groups for extra support based on observations from the activity and how students approached each problem. I saw students being okay with making mistakes and the teacher actually giving them permission to fail, because mistakes were seen as discussion opportunities for the class to sort them out together.

IM is a true inquiry approach to learning. Students are invested because they are challenged to think deeper about each problem. Instead of memorizing an answer, students are taught how to think and approach a problem that may at first be difficult for them. Each lesson has an entry point for all students to be successful by presenting problems that have multiple pathways to a solution.

My grade 5 teacher has a classroom of challenging students who often have problems with negative behavior. She has seen less incidents because students are engaged in their learning and working together. With IM, true collaboration occurs as students work together to approach problems. The teacher is a facilitator of learning and the student is the mathematician. IM provides teachers the materials and language necessary to create an environment where students can engage in true discourse and are exposed to mathematical work that deepens their understanding of content by asking questions and posing problems at higher depths of knowledge. 

Many of my teachers are observing students during the cool-down, and grouping students right then and there to pull small groups to provide scaffolding to students who are not able to solve the problem. Students with a grasp of the concept are working to solve another problem and further their learning. All students are exposed to grade-level content and standards, but students who have gaps in their learning around that specific concept are able to work in small groups with the teacher to support their learning by trying a new strategy shared by a classmate or tying the concept to a manipulative or diagram. 

I can’t say enough about the differences I am seeing in the classroom with student engagement, depth of knowledge, and application. My teachers are excited to teach math and are believers in IM!

Finally, as an administrator, IM has shifted how I use classroom walkthroughs during math instruction. The IM curriculum has embedded best practices and high-yield instructional strategies. I can easily pull up the lesson plan and monitor the teachers use of the strategy and language provided to shift student thinking. 

However, the focus of my walkthrough is watching students and how they respond to the teacher’s instruction. Instead of sitting at my computer checking multiple boxes, I have the ability to walk around the classroom and watch how students work in small groups or independently solve problems. I get to see how students go about solving a problem, and how they interact with the teacher in the moment as they pose questions to move their thinking forward. I see far more of my teachers able to shift students’ thinking than I did when observing a whole-group lesson and worksheet with past instruction. When I leave a classroom observation, I feel like the teacher and I collaborated to increase student outcomes and improve instruction all through watching students work and having a reflective, on the spot conversation about the lesson. 

This form of classroom walkthrough enables me to be an instructional leader in my building and I have firsthand knowledge of standards our students are struggling to master, which guides building-wide decisions and professional learning.


Next Steps

Moving forward with IM, our math team has started meeting twice a month to further our own professional learning by studying the progressions of mathematics for students, the NCTM Principles to Action, and measuring student outcomes based on instruction. With every discussion and deep dive into the NCTM Principles to Action, it becomes more apparent that IM provides the structure necessary to ensure we are teaching students according to the standards and providing the rigor and conceptual understanding necessary to truly grow mathematicians. After implementing IM this fall, we saw more growth on the middle of the year district assessment than previous years. Perhaps most importantly, we are seeing students who are excited about math and willing to engage in productive struggle. 

Crystal Magers
Elementary School Principal

Crystal Magers is in her 15th year in education with Springfield Public Schools. For the past seven years she has served as principal, prior to that she served as assistant to the principal, and taught kindergarten and grade 1 in title and non-title schools. Crystal obtained her bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education, with an emphasis in special education, obtained certification in early childhood, and a master’s in Educational Administration. Crystal went further to obtain her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership and is passionate about collaborating to build the capacity of teachers through intentional job embedded professional learning, coaching, feedback and support while watching students learn more than they thought possible!

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  1. I am really struggling with using inquiry based learning. Our district adopted an inquiry based learning curriculum in math about 9 years ago.
    It sounded like a no brainer and that kids would flourish with this approach.
    Instead, we have seen our student test scores, that were once well above our state average, dip below our state average year after year.
    I was shocked when I came across John Hattie’s research in regards to the low learning effect size of inquiry based learning. Sometimes a promising theory just doesn’t pan out. It seems clear to me (it really pains me state this) that inquiry based learning probably isn’t the holy grail we thought it would be. This is a link to John Hattie talking about inquiry based learning from 2015. This year I heard him talk on a podcast that he once thought inquiry based learning would transform education but the research kept showing that it wasn’t working. He spend many years trying to find problems with the research but had to come to the reality that inquiry based learning just isn’t the answer.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUooOYbgSUg

    I have started to to read about cognitive load theory after seeing a Dylan Wiliam(esteemed educational researcher) tweet that stated that he had come to the conclusion Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know.
    https://www.teachertoolkit.co.uk/2019/03/18/cognitive-load-theory/

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