Hooking non-math people on math


A strange thing has been happening in my workshops. People are getting really excited about solving problems. Now this isn’t really a surprise when I’m talking about workshops with math teachers. I would hope they would be excited to do some math.

No, I’m talking about the non-math teachers—those that teach something boring like social studies (I kid…kind of) or PE or even the guidance counselors that somehow wind up in my meetings.

It turns out that even those people that claim to hate math are tinkering away at puzzles, shooing people away until they find the answer, and then lighting up when they think they found a solution. Sometimes people who don’t have to be in my meetings are asking to sit in or for copies of the problem so they can work on them in the other room.

It’s very strange. Especially when the adults I see working hard on the problems tell me over and over how much they hate math or how they have never been good at it. But there they are trying to solve problems, writing equations, constructing arguments and critiquing the arguments of their peers.

It seems that when I present the task as a puzzle and not a math task, it draws them in. Yes, some get frustrated for a bit. But quickly it becomes a mission and they keep going back to it. They persevere. They use multiple strategies. They engage in mathematical reasoning despite the fact that they claim to hate math and are bad at it.

One of the things we wind up talking about after doing these activities is how we translate this to our classrooms. How do we create this same excitement with our kids in our classroom?

The push-back is there—that teachers can’t do “fun” problems all the time, they don’t have enough time or that their kids don’t even know their multiplication facts. But when we dig deeper, it turns out that math teachers aren’t necessarily good marketers.

We don’t always know how to hook kids. We don’t highlight the sexy parts of math. We don’t draw them in with an intriguing puzzle and then make them beg for the tools to solve the problem with. Dan has talked about this a lot, but I think it bears repeating. We need to be better at selling our subject.

In an attempt to do that, here are some of the tasks that have created the most energy in my sessions:

The puzzles from the transition to algebra program 

Fawn’s Noah’s Ark problem

Writing equations for geometric patterns:

Lesson Study

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I’ve been hearing and reading about lesson study for a long time, but I never had the experience to be part of one.  Luckily my work this year involves getting lesson study off the ground at a handful of schools.  It’s been an amazing experience. In fact, I think it is the best professional development I’ve been a part of. For those of you who don’t know what lesson study is, here’s how the Teachers College Lesson Study Research Group describes it:

“Lesson study is a professional development process that Japanese teachers engage in to systematically examine their practice, with the goal of becoming more effective. This examination centers on teachers working collaboratively on a small number of “study lessons”. Working on these study lessons involves planning, teaching, observing, and critiquing the lessons. To provide focus and direction to this work, the teachers select an overarching goal and related research question that they want to explore. This research question then serves to guide their work on all the study lessons.” 

I think part of the reason I love lesson study is because it aligns with my experience doing research, but it has a more immediate impact than the research that I am involved with in my academic life.

For me, setting the research question the team wants to study is the most interesting and important part of the cycle. It allows the group to really focus on an aspect of teaching and learning that they want to improve.

One school I work with is trying to shift to a culture of problem-solving.  They want to move away from the idea that in math class the teacher shows students how to do a procedure and students blindly follow it.  Instead, they want to build problem solving skills and perseverance in students so that students can build on what they know to solve problems.  As many of you know, this is a difficult change for students (and sometimes teachers) to make.

Lesson study allows us to struggle with this challenge together.  We can look at questions like: “How do we best allow students to productively struggle?” or “Which types of tasks build problem-solving skills?”  Having multiple brains to look at these questions in the context of a specific lesson allows us to build on the collective wisdom of the group. It also allows for the experience to be shared so that it isn’t about a particular teacher, but rather about a particular lesson.

Lesson study is some of the most interesting work I’ve done as an instructional coach.I can’t wait to share more in the weeks to come. I’d also love to hear about your experiences with lesson study.

Rules that Expire


Why can’t we just teach them the rule? At what point do we stop this “exploration” and just give them the rule? When I was in school, the teacher just taught us the rule–we didn’t need to understand it. 

I’ve talked before about why teaching math as a bunch of rules to memorize is a problem–even if you teach the rules in a really creative way or with a catchy song. If students don’t have any understanding of why rules work, they begin to think of math as this mysterious thing that doesn’t make sense. They mix rules up and constantly need a teacher or answer key to tell them if they picked the right rule. They lose the ability to make sense of things on their own. I often talk with students who can reason about a problem and get the right answer, but get it wrong because they are following a rule that they incorrectly memorized.

I recently read a great article “13 rules that expire” that talks about another problem—the fact that many of the rules we teach kids in elementary school don’t work anymore when students move to middle and high school math. For example, when I taught middle school, my students were often confused about multiplication of fractions. They kept telling me that “multiplication makes numbers bigger.”

I recommend taking the time to read the article. It’s is an important reminder to be precise with language when working with young students. It’s also a good read for middle and high school teachers. It gives some insight into the struggles students face when they try to reconcile the rules they may have learned with new experiences that break those rules.

I’m interested to hear what you think of it.

Three things I’m loving this week.

September is off to a great start.  Here are some highlights from my week:

1. This activity:


I love that this task is accessible and challenging to different level learners.  Students who didn’t know their multiplication facts used drawing and square tiles to help them figure out the dimensions. Higher level students were able to tackle part C.

2. Problems of the week from the Math Forum

After watching Annie Fetter’s webinar about Math Forum’s Problems of the Week, I am hooked. Not only is it a great source of interesting tasks, the teacher resources for engaging students in solving problems are awesome!

3. Mystery number


Kids love solving puzzles.  At the start of the week, each student in the class picked a favorite number. Every day when the students entered the class, they listed different facts about their number. The day I visited they were working on factors. A student would share the factors for his or her mystery number and the class would have to guess the mystery number. I’ve never seen kids so excited about factors.

Unrelated to work, I am loving training in this fall weather for my next half-marathon. I am also loving that is pumpkin spice latte season (even though I’m a little sad to see iced coffee season leave)  What about you? What are you loving this week?

Setting Routines that Build Number Sense


This was the first full week of school in New York City! As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with teachers about routines. Veteran teachers know the importance of setting routines and new teachers quickly learn that without routines, the best planned lessons quickly fall apart.

While routines for classroom management are super important, they aren’t what I want to talk about. I’m more interested in setting routines that help develop mathematical thinking– especially number sense.

Counting circles are a perfect example of such a routine. Once you set the routine, the counting circle can be used in many different ways and in many different grades to develop number sense. I learned all about them from the one and only Sadie. Definitely read her post to learn more. I also highly recommend reading more about them in Number Sense Routines even if you don’t teach K-3.

The other book I’ve been loving is High Yield Routines. It’s an easy read and I got a lot of great ideas from it. Here’s one I’ve been playing with.

Today’s Number  Students are given a carefully chosen number and asked to list everything they know about it. Students then generate different representations of the number–drawings, equations, examples. Through discussion about the different representations, student can be pushed to think about different ways to decompose and recompose today’s number.

What I love about this is that it can be easily adapted to different grades. Today’s Number can be a whole number, a fraction, decimal, a negative number, an irrational number and so on… In addition, students can access the task at whatever level they are at. Some may have only one representation, others may have many that they can begin to compare and contrast.

For me, this would work well as a Do Now. Maybe I would do it once a week or maybe more at the beginning or the year. It can also be used as part of your homework and the discussion can take place at the start of class. I also think it might be neat to share with parents as an activity they can do at home with their kids. However you use it, I think it’s a great routine to start at the beginning of the year and track how students’ number sense builds throughout the year.

I’d love to know what you think.

What routines do you use that help students build number sense?

Welcome back


I’m back. It’s been a while.

I took a break this summer–from blogging, from twitter, from workshops. I did a little writing, some for my dissertation and some for academic papers. I went to Vancouver and gave a talk at a conference. I visited Puerto Rico and drank pina coladas by the pool. I spent some time in the mountains in Utah, and at the beach in Cape Cod. It’s been a great couple of months.

And now it’s back to school. I always have mixed feelings when summer ends. It’s by far my favorite time of year. For many reasons. The beach and the pina coladas being a major one. Another is that it gives me the time and space to reflect on the past school year. What went well? What didn’t? What are my goals for this year? How do I do things better? Do I still want to do what I am doing?

Here’s what I realized this summer. The thing I love most about what I do is building relationships–with students and with teachers. It was hard for me to do that well last year because I was bouncing around to different schools all the time. So this year, I’ll only be working at three schools. I’ll be at each school at least once a week supporting the math teams. I’m excited to really be part of the teams instead of popping in for a visit here and there.

I also reflected on I want to learn more about this year. I narrowed it down to two (for now):

  • Meaningful Feedback.  I had the chance to finally meet Michael Pershan and pick his brain about math mistakes over coffee. We talked about a lot about meaningful student feedback. What does it look like? How does written feedback differ from verbal feedback? What types of tasks or questions promote learning from one’s mistakes?
  • Guided Math Groups and/or Centers. Most classrooms I work with contain children with a wide range of abilities. While there are a lot of great ways to use open ended tasks that students of all abilities can access, we also need to work with students at their level in small groups. I’m trying to figure out the best ways to make that work in both elementary school and middle school.

I’m excited to get back on twitter and read what all of you have been up to. It’s good to be back.

Number Bonds


These past few weeks have been a bit busy for me. So much great stuff has been going on, but I haven’t had a chance to write about any of it. This week, I forced myself to sit down and write a little bit so I don’t forget all of it.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how to develop number sense with young students. Building strong number sense is one of the most important things elementary school teachers can do. There are many ways to do it and I’ve been trying to figure out the advantages and disadvantages of different strategies.

The activities that are particularly interesting to me help develop students’ ability to decompose and recompose numbers. Understanding that a whole can be composed from different parts is a big idea for students. They don’t see a connection between all the different facts that for example, add to 8.

Students who develop these connections will have an easier time developing the big idea of decomposing numbers. When faced with a fact like 9 + 6, they can think about decomposing either of the numbers into parts that may make the calculation easier. For example, by decomposing the 6 into 1+ 5, they can think about adding the 1 to the 9 to make 10 and then adding the 5 to the 10 to get 15.

So how do we help students decompose and recompose numbers?

Number bonds are one way. I like them because they can help students visualize the different parts that can be used to create a certain number.

You can start by having students use hands-on materials, like cubes and counters, and asking them to find all the different ways they can break a number into parts. They can then represent what they are doing with a picture. Here are some different number bond diagrams for the number 8.



After students have had lots of practice with hands-on materials and drawing diagrams, they can then move to using numbers.



I like number bonds because they provide a nice visual for students to use to think about decomposing and recomposing numbers. Of course, this is just the beginning. Students then need to think about strategies for decomposing and recomposing numbers in ways that help make computations easier. However, I think it’s important to make sure students have this foundation.

What do you think? Do you use number bonds with your students? Are they helpful?

Want to know more? Check out: Baroody, A. J. (2006). Mastering the Basic Number Combinations. Teaching Children Mathematics, 23.

Building Fluency and Number Sense

I think the most important thing elementary school teachers can do in math class is to build students’ fluency with rational numbers.  The research shows that weak number sense and fluency underlies many difficulties students have with math (Geary, Bow-Thomas, & Yao, 1992).

Just to be clear, I don’t mean having students memorize their multiplication tables or race to answer questions the fastest.  I mean having them be fluent with numbers similar to the way we think about being fluent in a language.

Here’s a definition of fluency from NCTM’s Principles and Standards for School Mathematics: “Computational fluency refers to having efficient and accurate methods for computing. Students exhibit computational fluency when they demonstrate flexibility in the computational methods they choose, understand and can explain these methods, and produce accurate answers efficiently” (p. 152).

To me, that means I need to ask:

  • Can they work flexibly with numbers?  Can they decompose and recompose different numbers easily and in a variety of ways?
  • Can they use mental math to solve problems or do they always need to resort to pencil and paper and a traditional algorithm?
  • Do they have efficient ways to solve problems?

I’ve heard a lot of complaints recently about attempts to teach fluency to students–mostly related to complaints about the common core. Parents don’t understand why we are teaching students these new ways to add or subtract instead of the just showing them the traditional algorithm they learned in school.

The thing is that many of these strategies aren’t new. Students who have strong number sense and fluency have been developing these strategies on their own. What’s new is that we are now explicitly teaching all students these strategies. A parent who attended one of my workshops explained it nicely:

  • This makes more sense to me than to me than how I learned math.  I am an Engineer with 5+ years of calculus and I find the thought process to solve the problems the kids are working on is much closer to how I think, but I had to figure it out on my own.

I’ll talk more about some of the ways we can develop fluency in students, but if you want to read about it now, check out:

O’Loughlin, T. (2007). Using Research to Develop Computational Fluency in Young Mathematicians. Teaching Children Mathematics14(3), 132-138.

Teaching Time

rsz_img_runI started the race at 7:54 am and crossed the finish line at 10:27 am.  How long did it take me to run the race?

This problems, often labeled as elapsed time problems, are difficult for students to solve.  One reason is that students often have trouble coordinating between the two different units–hours and minutes.  In fact, in one study, only 58% of eighth-grade knew that 150 minutes is equal to 2 1/2 hours (Jones and Arbaugh 2004).

I recently witnessed this first hand in a third grade class. The students really struggled with these types of problems. Many students wanted to subtract 754 from 1027. I didn’t know what to do. So I went to the research and found some work by Juli Dixon that used open number lines to help students reason about these types of problems.

Open number lines can be used by students to count up, count down and find distances between numbers.

Here’s one way to use the open number line to solve the problem above.


Now, that’s not the first problem I had students begin with, but I wanted you to get a sense of how the open number line works.

Dixon also notes that you should allow students to use the number line in ways that make sense to them. You should not prescribe one way of using it to solve a problem, as there are multiple ways that work. Students can share the different strategies with the class.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m all for diagrams that allow students to reason about problems. In this case, I love that the diagrams allow for students to record what is happening as it is very hard to keep track of all the steps. I’ll talk more about how I built up to this another time, but I’m curious to hear what you have done with your students.

Want to know more?  Check out the articles below:

Dixon, Juli K. “Tracking Time.” Teaching Children Mathematics, 19 (August 2008): 18-24

Jones, Dustin L., and Fran Arbaugh. “What Do Students Know about Time?” Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School 10 (September 2004): 82–84.

Monroe, Eula Ewing, Michelle P. Orme, and Lynnette B. Erickson. “Working Cotton: Toward an Understanding of Time.” Teaching Children Mathematics 8 (April 2002): 475–79.

Draw a Picture: Check out the webinar

Draw a Picture: Check out the webinar

In March, I did a session for Global Math Department on drawing diagrams. If you don’t know about Global Math Department, you should check it out. They present free video conferences and webinars every Tuesday night and you can join in and participate that night or you can watch the recording later if you can’t make it.  Here’s the recording of my talk.

It was an interesting experience for me. I find that whenever I have to write a blog post or prepare a presentation, I learn more about the topic. The process of synthesizing and preparing the message I want to deliver forces me to think about the content in different ways.

It was also a unique experience because it was a different type of interaction with the audience than I’m used to. When I do workshops, I can read the body language of the members and I can interact with them differently. My workshops are also much more interactive and I do far less talking than the participants. With the webinar I did, I could read the comments and interact that way but it was a different form of communication for me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to foster learning with teachers. What activities help them develop new ideas? When I look at my own learning, the experiences that help me are sometimes listening to talks or reading books or articles. But I think experiencing new ways of learning math and then trying these methods out with students help the most.

I’m really interested in how to create different learning experiences for teachers.  I’d love to hear any ideas you have or more about what learning experiences have been helpful for you.