Coming Together Around Distance Learning

By William McCallum

I can’t imagine what it must feel like right now to be a teacher facing the uncharted territory that is the coming school year. Will I be teaching 100% online, or have some face-to-face interaction with my students? Will I be teaching synchronously or asynchronously for most of the school year? How will I get to know my students and how will they engage in one another’s ideas? How will I get to know my students’ families? How can I give them manageable guidance to support students this year? Most of all, where can I get help with all these questions?

I’ve heard a lot of talk about the digital tools needed to solve such problems, such as learning management systems and online curriculum platforms. But these things, as useful as they may be, are just tools. Tools don’t solve peoples’ problems; people solve their problems with tools. At IM we have been thinking not so much about which digital tools to choose—there are plenty of them out there, from simple to complex—but about how to support teachers in managing the content they put into the digital tools.  We believe it is the arrangement of content that will give us the opportunity to reimagine what virtual instruction looks like, in ways that will continue to be useful after things return to whatever the next new normal will look like.

So what is IM doing right now?

First, if there is a positive side to the chaos of the last three months, it is that teachers bring a wealth of experience. We have heard teachers share what tools worked for them or didn’t, what materials engaged students or didn’t, and how they built community and connected with families. So our first step in supporting distance learning is to create a national virtual collaboration hub, where IM curriculum users will be able to connect with each other, find resources, and share their learning. 

Second, we are developing resources to help teachers think about how to arrange the content in our curriculum in a distance learning environment. When we think about how to structure time for distance learning, we think in terms of groups of lessons around a coherent topic rather than individual lessons. (Technically, these are sections in the units of our curriculum.) This makes it possible to organize each section’s activities according to whatever hybrid schedule a particular school has adopted, while maintaining the coherence of the curriculum. It allows us to think about which activities will engage families, which activities students might be able to engage with on their own, and when it would be desirable to have students working together with a teacher, whether in the classroom or online.

To support this work, we are producing guidance documents for each section that will help teachers think about these issues. In addition, we are producing video summaries of each section for 6– 12 that will help teachers, and possibly caregivers, quickly get the gist of the mathematics and make sense of the activities within the section. For K–5 we are thinking about which activities promote open math discussions at home, so that families can support without being expected to help or teach to their child. What encourages students to see math in the world around them?

Distance Learning: Three Guiding Principles

More details to come in future blog posts, but for now I want to emphasize three guiding principles in our work on distance learning.

First, engagement. Without student engagement, not much learning will happen, no matter what tool you are using. The problem-based design of our curriculum was premised on the need for student engagement. That normally happens inside a classroom. The challenge will be to figure out how to make it happen at a distance. Everything we are producing is guided by that overarching need.

Second, community. The learning teachers and families have gained over the last few months, and the knowledge and wisdom they have about what works for their students, are precious resources not to be wasted. The virtual collaboration hub will be a place to amplify that learning and share that knowledge. As the year rolls by we will learn together.

Third, permanence. What we do this coming year should sustain us beyond that year. Knowledge about how to engage students and their families, and about how to help students with unfinished learning, will always be useful. A permanent community of teachers and coaches sharing insights and resources will continue to sustain us on our journey towards a world where all learners know, use, and enjoy mathematics

Next Steps

Keep an eye on our new distance learning page, and watch this blog for more posts about new resources for the 2020–2021 school year.

You can also sign up to receive updates and be the first to know when you can access the IM Community Hub, where you can create, share, and get resources for unfinished learning, distance learning, and family supports.

William McCallum

Bill McCallum, founder of Illustrative Mathematics, is a University Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at the University of Arizona. He has worked in both mathematics research, in the area of number theory and arithmetical algebraic geometry, and mathematics education, writing textbooks and advising researchers and policy makers. He is a founding member of the Harvard Calculus Consortium and lead author of its college algebra and multivariable calculus texts. In 2009–2010 he was one of the lead writers for the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics. He holds a Ph. D. in Mathematics from Harvard University and a B.Sc. from the University of New South Wales.

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