How to help educators teach meaningful math online during closures

While ed tech platforms solve many challenges, schools need to ensure teachers are providing manipulatives and keeping communications open for students without internet access during school closures
By: | June 5, 2020
In a NCTM webinar about virtual math instruction, presenter Chrissy Newell shared online math programs that can help educators with teaching math online effectively.PD webinar with Chrissy Newell: See It, Move It, Grasp It: Math with Virtual Manipulatives (Pk-2)

K-12 leaders can help educators who are struggling to provide meaningful mathematics instruction online by ensuring students are using manipulatives and have the ability to share their thinking with teachers and their peers.

“Making math meaningful involves providing tasks and opportunities that allow students to engage in ways that make sense in their world to build upon whatever understanding they have at that moment to do meaningful work,” says President Trena Wilkerson of National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), a mathematics education organization.

Virtual manipulatives for mathematics

Adding the use of manipulatives to virtual math instruction will allow younger students to see how objects work by physically engaging with these materials. “Some schools have found ways to get manipulatives into their students’ hands at home, but many haven’t,” says Wilkerson.

For schools that haven’t, leaders should encourage educators who are teaching math online to adopt programs that use virtual manipulatives. Students who do not have access to the internet should create manipulatives using everyday objects at home.


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“Cutting out two colors of paper can serve as two color counters that can be used for counting, operations and fractions,” says Wilkerson. “Measuring cups and spoons along with rulers, tape measures and measuring sticks are great tools for developing an understanding of fractions.”

Similarly, students can use paper and scissors to make shapes for geometry, and various containers to explore volume and surface area.

Students need to share their thinking

Likewise, leaders should ensure that teachers are encouraging students to share their thinking. “There needs to be an open dialogue in learning just to ensure students are engaging with the mathematical principles and making sense of it in their world,” says Wilkerson.

Many ed tech platforms allow learners to communicate with each other and their teachers. But for students who don’t have internet access, leaders need to encourage educators to open up communications with learners through calls or texts or by having students deliver hand-written questions via the U.S. postal service. “Most schools that are doing work without internet access have a process for picking up work that can be sent back to teachers,” says Wilkerson. “There are cases where teachers are going by and picking up student work as well.”

Virtual math resources

Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success For All offers guidance to teachers, mathematics coaches, administrators, parents, and policymakers

PD webinar with Chrissy Newell: See It, Move It, Grasp It: Math with Virtual Manipulatives (Pk-2)

Free resources for teaching math online: nctm.org/freeresources

More online resources from NCTM: nctm.org/Classroom-Resources/More-Online-Resources-from-NCTM

Finding the best online math programs

If students have web-enabled devices or internet access at home, school leaders should have a process of vetting programs to find the platform that will allow students to engage in meaningful math exercises.

NCTM recommends asking the following questions based on research-based teaching practices to find the best online math programs:

  • Does the platform allow students to share responses with the teacher and with peers as well?
  • Does it support dialogue?
  • Does it allow them to share their work through a picture, screen shot, in real-time, video, or other method?
  • Can they work with a shared document, or have small group work opportunities?
  • Does it support both verbal and written dialogue as some students may find that verbal is important to them and others may want to share only in writing?
  • Does it support the use of multiple representations?
  • Can students and teacher access virtual manipulatives

“We need to keep access and equity in the forefront by ensuring teachers receive enough support to provide learning opportunities and that there are equitable structures in place,” says Wilkerson. “Students need to experience the wonder and joy of math that makes them want to notice and ask questions. We want to keep that inquisitive nature nurtured.”

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