Math Exposure Isn’t Enough

A few months ago I remember sitting in a meeting where teachers were discussing students and their math placements.  The conversation revolved around the topic of whether students should change math placements for the next school year.  For example, should a student stay in a homeroom math class or be part of an accelerated class?  How will we provide additional math support for particular students?  These types of questions tend to occur throughout the school year, but action for the next year often takes place near the end of the school year.

The decision to change placements is based on a variety of factors, but many schools/districts narrow down their criteria using standardized assessment data.  That data is often in the form of achievement, cognitive, and/or even aptitude tests.  Each district that I’ve been in has had a different process to determine subject placements.  This placement process becomes even more apparent as students travel from elementary to middle or middle to high school. Students’ birthdates, norm-referenced test scores, and percentages often take center stage during these decisions.  Sometimes the conversation evolves into whether students would be able to transfer the skills to a more rigorous math program than the one that they’re currently attending.  The conversations are usually productive and emphasize how to best meet the needs of students.

The topic of exposure is often brought up when making these types of math placement decisions.  A quick Google search will bring up one of the definitions – “introduce someone to a subject or area of knowledge.” I have heard on more than one occasion the following paraphrased statements/ideas:

  • If students haven’t been exposed to the content then they won’t be prepared
  • Those students weren’t exposed to above grade level work so they won’t be ready for that class
  •  The reason the student scored at the ___%ile was because he/she was exposed to that skill before the test
  • If they’re not exposed to this class then they won’t take higher-level classes in high school

I feel like these types of phrases are thrown around lightly and in a way that doesn’t hit at a bigger issue  Being exposed to content doesn’t necessarily equate to applying it in different situations.  Showing a students how to complete a specific skill/process doesn’t mean that they fully understand a particular concept.  Students might understand a process, but are limited during the application stage.  Also, educators need to keep in mind whether an above grade level curriculum is developmentally appropriate for students.


I believe the bigger issue here is equity.

  • Are all students receiving high-quality math instruction?
  •  Do the tasks and math routines allow students opportunities to explore mathematics and build solid understandings?  
  • Do students need enrichment opportunities instead of acceleration?
  • Will being exposed to a new curriculum/topic/grade-level be the panacea to move students to a higher math placement?  Is that even a goal?  

So many questions are above and I’ll admit that I don’t have a solid solution for them.  I think we have to go back to what a school/district values. I do know that I want students to be curious about math and dive into its complexities.  Classrooms should develop a culture where taking mathematical risks is the norm.   High-quality math instruction takes investment from a school and district.  Ensuring that this instruction is occurring and support is provided is also important.  Mathematical tasks that encourage students to observe, create, and apply their understanding beats limited exposure any day. Exposure is the first step and it doesn’t end there.

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Meaningful Math Practice

 

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Last week many of my students took a pre-assessment on an adaptive app. This particular app gave students questions in a certain math strand area and sent out a grade level equivalency score (GRE). Once students finished the pre-assessment they were given question at the GRE. If a student answered a question incorrectly they were sent to a help screen. The students were asked to watch a video about the concept. Some of the students watched the video while others made more attempts at finding a solution. Even after watching the video students still answered the question incorrectly. Every incorrect question asked student to watch a video and try the question again.  Some of the students became frustrated and quit.

Most of the student were finding that the video wasn’t a helpful for math practice. This type of math exposure/practice wasn’t meaningful to the students. After observing this I started to analyze my school’s math practices. I started to question how many math exposures we truly give to students and how many of those opportunities are truly meaningful to students.

I find that students at my school are exposed to math in a variety of settings. Students are introduced to the idea of a particular math concept through a parent, teacher, nature, workbook, video, and many others. This experience is usually followed up with additional practice at some point. Students need to be given time to practice and apply what they’re learning. This often leads teachers to give students multiple exposures to specific math concepts. These exposures or practice opportunities give students time to experience math in different ways and through this I feel like students are able to comprehend/apply the math at a higher level.

Providing those multiple exposures is important. The form that the practice takes is just as important. While I’m in and out of different classrooms I find that the additional exposures sometimes take the forms below.


Worksheets

Although it may benefit some it’s not the only solution and I wouldn’t categorize this type of practice as extremely meaningful.  Primarily, I find student math journals or worksheets used for math practice. I believe both of these have a role in practice but changing the exposure model has benefits and often those two mediums are used for homework. In my district student will at some point have to show an understanding of numbers on a worksheet. Generally these types of worksheets are found on unit assessments. I should also mention that digital worksheets fall into this category as well.

Activity/Projects

These are some of the more memorable experiences in class. Giving students a problem with multiple solutions can be refreshing and give insight to what students are thinking as they create a solution.  This can also take the form of having students create projects with their peers.

Manipulatives

Taking out the pattern blocks can lead to some great learning opportunities. Fractions, base-ten blocks, algebra tiles, 3d Shapes, and many other manipulatives play a vital role in the classroom. Eventually these manipulatives take an abstract form on a worksheet/screen.

Games

Games are exciting. Blending math concepts, games and a bit of competition can lead to learning opportunities. I find this especially evident when the teacher or student helps explain their mathematical thinking in the process.

Videos

Watching a brief video about a particular concept can be a great opportunity for students. Pausing and offering commentary or asking questions can help students delve deeper into a particular concept.

Class Discussions

Having a classroom discussion about a particular math concept can be powerful.  Often these types of conversations can expand understanding of math concepts.  Hearing other students’ experiences or strategies many benefit the class.  It may also be helpful to document the class ideas and refer to the learning at a later time.

Reflections

Giving students opportunities to reflect on their learning can pay dividends throughout the school year. I find this to be especially beneficial as students look back at their progress to observe their own mathematical growth. The reflection can take place after any of the strategies shown above.


Math practice takes on many different forms.  How do educators make it a meaningful experience for students?