How we’re shifting math instruction in our school community

As a student, I was trained to have a very procedural approach to math. It wasn’t until I taught third grade that I realized I needed to think more flexibly. I knew I needed coaching to help me make the shift. I just didn’t know what I didn’t know. 

Many of us grew up learning procedurally, and it is very hard to unravel our procedural brain to move toward the conceptual instruction that leads to deeper student learning. Now, as a former math coach and a current assistant principal, I’m dedicated to helping my staff make the shift.

Over the decades, we’ve invested so much in literacy education in teacher education programs, and in my state, teachers have received vast support and coaching around literacy. I feel like we’ve done a great job equipping our teachers with the best practices required to teach kids how to read, but math sometimes feels like a critical missing piece.

I always go back to the idea that we don’t know what we don’t know. Conceptual math pedagogy isn’t new – these practices have been around for a long, long time – but for those of us who didn’t grow up with them, they don’t always feel efficient at first. We have to untrain our minds and retrain them. It wasn’t easy for me, and many teachers I work with find the journey challenging. However, I’ve found that once teachers see the difference conceptual knowledge-building makes in durable student learning, they’re convinced. It’s powerful.

Here’s how we’re moving toward this work in my school community:

We’re digging into the research together.

Building the case for rethinking math instruction requires digging into the research together, looking at high-value resources, and learning about their impact. There’s so much power in carving out time, sitting down and learning together as educators. We dig deep, spend time thinking and have conversations about what we notice ourselves doing already and what we can strengthen next.

Resources that resonate with my team:

We’re focusing on professional development individualized to grade-level standards, and then we’re wading into vertical planning.

We bring in outside coaches to work with teachers on math instruction. Teachers really need to start with the PD individualized to their grade band so they can learn immediate pedagogical strategies, but the deeper understanding comes when they engage in vertical planning and see how their grade band fits into the full picture. Over the past few years, our staff has invested in strengthening practices within grade levels, but we’re now at a point where we’re ready to start working together more vertically.

Resources that resonate with my team:

We’re looking closely at student work.

Some of the most powerful PD starts with a training on what the research says and then leads into PLC experiences, during which teachers analyze student work, see lessons modeled and dig in deep. Looking at student work is the critical piece in seeing the power of conceptual instruction.

We’re tapping into our core values and care for equitable student outcomes.

There’s a Steven C. Reinhart article we pass around my staff, Never Say Anything a Kid Can Say. It encourages us as educators to stop doing the thinking work and instead create environments where the students are the ones engaged in thinking and the students are doing the talking. If the teacher is talking through a whole lesson, the teacher is the one doing most of the thinking and learning, and you can’t tell what the students are learning. It’s a powerful shift. 

We’re embracing the process.

Every teacher is in a different place when it comes to this work. Some educators are further along on their journeys, and that’s okay. That’s how any team learning goes. The important thing I’ve seen is that all educators are motivated by our care for students and our commitment to supporting equitable learning outcomes.

As teachers begin to see the ways conceptual math practices drive better outcomes for students, they find it so rewarding. There’s no better feeling than investing the time in professional learning, then seeing it pay off in your students. When you look around the room and see students using manipulatives, moving their hands, and talking about math in a way that demonstrates engagement and discovery, you can see how much deeper the learning goes. Those moments ignite teachers’ passion, and when a teacher’s passion is there, the learning takes off. Students learn in new deeper ways, and we all move forward together.