by Matthew Beyranavand , K-12 Mathematics and Science Coordinator, MA:
I have always been a firm believer in tying lessons to the “real world” as a way to help student interest and engagement in learning math. I even wrote a blog less than a year ago about improving student engagement in math and included using the “real world” as one method. I detailed the benefits that explained why it is suggested and beneficial. However, I am now altering my position on this based upon the views of two giants in mathematics education on my podcast: Dan Meyer, of Desmos, and Jon Star, Professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Dan Meyer also gave a moving talk at the 2016 National Council of Teachers (NCTM) Annual Conference on Beyond Relevance & Real World: Stronger Strategies for Student Engagement that shaped my views on getting students authentically engaged in learning.
Dr. Meyer has noted that many teachers have tried to increase student interest and engagement in mathematics by trying to:
- Make math real world
- Make math job-world relevant
- Make math relevant
Although these might be true, the approaches by many math teachers are not working to get students interested. Instead, Dan suggests some different strategies for students to become truly and authentically engaged in the lesson.
- Spend time to develop the math problem. Do not rush students into finding the answer. Spend time having students ask questions and understand the problem before telling them to solve it.
- Ask students for their wrong answers and best guesses before they actually solve the problem.
- Create constructive controversy with the students based on different responses to the answers.
So, how would this approach translate into preparing and delivering a math lesson?
- Students explore the concept on their own or in small groups with active learning. There is limited information given. So, students try to develop their own hypothesis about the concept that they are about to learn.
- The teacher provides instruction on the concept and provides what is essential for a basic understanding of the concept that builds upon prior knowledge.
- The teacher gives students a question related to the concept,
- Review students' correct answers, but also celebrate “favorite mistakes” (revisit strategy 2) to encourage students to learn from mistakes and practice growth mindset
Dr. Star believes that it is important to have a conversation with elementary students about math in the real world because much of the math they learn can be easily identified in their daily lives. However, it is not so easy for secondary school math teachers. For Algebra or Geometry teachers, much of the math learned cannot be easily tied to real life, but it is important to learn about the discipline that is critical to understand the world. It also teaches students to get better at analytical thinking and problem solving. Finally, we can take a concept used in reading and apply it to math. For example, if students are reading a great work of literature in their English class, they are not reading the novel to learn about merchants in 17th-century England because they will use it in their real life. They are reading the book to understand life and humanity, as well as to gain a better understanding of the world and culture. The same can also be true for mathematics.
As teachers, we should never allow our thoughts and beliefs to be stagnant. We should always rethink our styles and be willing to try new things. The moment we stop learning and being creative is the start of the decline in our pedagogy. After almost 20 years as a math educator, I have begun a core shift of my beliefs related to student engagement. If I had a fixed mindset, I would avoid this challenge and stick to my beliefs. I would brush this off as nonsense or even take offense at what others are suggesting. However, like I instill in my students, it is important for teachers to have a growth mindset. Hard work, embracing challenges, always looking to improve, and constant effort are examples of becoming the best math educator possible.
Dr. Matthew Beyranevand is the K-12 Mathematics and Science Coordinator for Chelmsford Public Schools in Massachusetts. Through his website, Math with Matthew, Matthew provides visitors with podcasts, music videos, educational resources, and a video blog. After years as a middle school mathematics teacher, Matthew transitioned into school administration. He is leading a department of over 80 middle and high school Math and Science teachers. As a Graduate Instructor at UMASS Lowell and Fitchburg State University for over 30 semesters of Mathematics and Education courses, Matthew has become an expert in the best-practice techniques for instructing both new and established teachers.