Making New (School) Year’s Resolutions Stick

I love the first day of school.  I love sharp new pencils and blank notebooks.  I love meeting new students that will change your life in ways you can’t even begin to imagine.   Most of all, I love the hope it presents.  It’s a chance to do things differently.

Many of you are excited to try new things this year that you learned about over the summer.  Maybe you attended a workshop.  Maybe you are using a new inquiry-based curriculum.  Maybe you took Jo Boaler’s course on “How to Learn Math.”  Maybe you have been reading the blogs.  Maybe you have been reading the research.

In any case, you are ready to start the school year with a more student-centered approach to math.   Teaching with less of an emphasis on memorizing procedures and more of a focus on developing an understanding of the math concepts.

Here’s the thing.  It’s really hard.  And so the year starts off with the best intentions and then they fall by the wayside come October.

It reminds me of my New Year’s resolution to work out more.  Last January, I took a kickboxing class.   The first thing the instructor asked us to do was ten push-ups.  The problem was I couldn’t do one push up. Not one.  While everyone around me did perfect push-up after perfect push-up, I lied on the mat completely frustrated.

So what did my trainer do?   Did he tell me to give up and go home?  Of course not. He told me to try a push-up on my knees.   That first day, I could barely do three. Then the next week I could do more.   A few weeks later, he had me get off my knees and do a push-up where my legs were far apart.  Each week, I moved my legs closer together until one day I finally did one push-up in perfect form. It took months.

I share this because real change takes time.    There is no quick fix when it comes to teaching and learning math.  

Many students aren’t used to a math class that involves problem solving.  They aren’t used to the idea that struggling with tasks can be a good thing.    They aren’t used to looking for multiple solutions.  They aren’t used to justifying their answers.  They aren’t used to having classroom conversations about why a procedure works or whether it works all the time.

If you try to completely change the way students do math all at once and expect change to happen overnight, the kids are going to lie on the mat frustrated.

Just like I needed to build the muscles in my arms and core, your students need to build the muscles in their brains when math class no longer involves the teacher showing them what to do to and helping them as soon as they get stuck.

Building this new culture takes time.  Developing new norms in your classroom will be an on-going process.  Don’t try to do everything at once.  Students may not know how to approach a problem when they aren’t told what to do.  They may not know how to talk about math or what an explanation is or how to justify their answer.

That’s ok.  You will get them there as long if you don’t give up.  Start by adapting problems so they have multiple entry points. Give them smaller tasks at first that will build their stamina.  Then move to more complex problems.  Start with little bits of math talk and have the conversations get a little bit longer each week.  Most importantly, give them time to adjust to a new way to learn and do math.  One day, they will be able to do a push-up in perfect form, but it’s not going to be right away.

I’ll talk more about the specifics of how to begin to do this in another post, but if you want to know now, check out this post and research below.

Carpenter, T. P., & Lehrer, R. (1999). Teaching and learning mathematics with understanding. Mathematics classrooms that promote understanding, 19-32.

Wood, T., Cobb, P., & Yackel, E. (1991). Change in teaching mathematics: A case study. American Educational Research Journal, 28(3), 587-616.

Yackel, E., & Cobb, P. (1996). Sociomathematical norms, argumentation, and autonomy in mathematics. Journal for research in mathematics education, 458-477.


3 thoughts on “Making New (School) Year’s Resolutions Stick

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