Making math relevant starts with valuing your students’ experiences

What if, instead of seeing students as empty vessels that must be filled with math concepts, we made the knowledge students already have the foundation of instruction?
Anita Crowder
Anita Crowder
Anita Crowder, Ph.D., is the director of impact at Illustrative Mathematics (IM). She is passionate about making STEM careers more accessible and attainable for people from communities currently underrepresented in STEM fields through academic research, curriculum design and practical programming.

In English class, students relate to characters in novels. In history class, they contemplate how the past shapes their present. And in social studies, they discuss their backgrounds so they can learn from one another. In each instance, having students connect their experiences to the subject matter is considered integral to their understanding and learning process. Yet, this same approach to making math relevant is rarely found in the classroom.

Often, students are told they need to learn math because it’s everywhere and will be used in nearly everything they do in the future. However, when it comes time for instruction, students are sometimes taught to memorize algorithms and computations to pass state standards, rarely tying the math to their own life experiences or making the math relevant.

What if, instead of seeing students as empty vessels that must be filled with math concepts, we made the knowledge students already have the foundation of our teaching? With a problem-based approach that infuses culturally responsive pedagogy, math becomes relevant to students’ lived experiences. Based on my years of experience in the classroom and research in educational psychology, I’ve found the following perspectives to be helpful in building a math community with a high-quality curriculum that can reshape math education and support all students to see themselves as creators and thinkers instead of followers of instruction.

Your math community starts with your students’ experiences

The concept of community is often left out of math curriculum because historically mathematics educators have been instructed to show students how to solve problems and emphasize the belief that practicing specific steps is how students learn math. This rote and individualistic approach to learning leaves out many students, especially Black and Brown ones, who often come from cultures that value collectivism.

In math, leveraging the classroom community can encourage students to use their developing knowledge and that of their peers to question, collaborate and discuss their way to the answer as a group. This process not only acknowledges that all student experiences are assets, but it deconstructs the societal notion that a person can or cannot be “a math person”.

Building a math community has to be intentional, with strong teacher involvement—like co-crafting community norms with students, developing structures of working in groups and establishing routines that make students believe their ideas will always be heard and valued. The goal is to make students feel safe to be themselves so they can take risks, listen to each other, and disagree respectfully, which builds lasting and personal connections to the sometimes-invisible iterative aspects of problem-solving in mathematics.

Mindset shift supported by a high-quality curriculum

A culturally responsive, problem-based curriculum asks educators to teach students in a markedly different way from how they were taught math. That mindset shift has to start with believing that it’s possible. It means setting aside the notion that formulas and algorithms exist outside of students’ cultural backgrounds and experiences and embracing the idea that the collaborative journey to a solution is more important than getting the correct answer.

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A high quality, centralized curriculum that teachers can trust frees educators from curating lessons and tasks. This allows them to focus on building their students’ knowledge, which builds trust in their students’ thinking. This ultimately gives educators more time to become familiar with their students as educators focus on their many tasks, such as understanding curriculum materials, assessing student readiness for the work, anticipating student responses, addressing differentiated instruction, figuring out opportunities for practice and giving feedback on student work.

Administrators who value deep subject matter knowledge

Before teachers can build a math community that nurtures student thinking, they need leadership who believe in its value and will give teachers the time to do it. Unlike direct instruction, where teachers demonstrate one way to solve an equation, culturally responsive problem-based instruction requires they imagine the multiple approaches students might take to reach a solution and understand how those approaches fit into the sequencing of math concepts. That kind of deep knowledge of how the standards facilitate and scaffold student learning requires time for professional development, individual learning and observation of other classrooms. District leaders can provide these opportunities by reevaluating their existing systems and policies.

Whether going to a part-time job, celebrating holidays or caring for siblings, students are encouraged—and sometimes forced—to collaborate, inquire and discover in other parts of their lives. They’re already problem-solving, which, in the end, is exactly what math is. When students are encouraged to bring and their entire selves and their knowledge into the classroom, learning math concepts can become the joyful and welcoming experience for which every educator strives.

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