NIS Stories

Nurturing Creative and Resilient Problem Solvers


mypmathIf you're like most people, you didn't enjoy mathematics in school. Some topics were confusing, while others made good sense, and everyone around you seemed to go at a different pace. You had a new teacher every year, which affected you and your peers differently because some liked the teacher, but others found them boring. And then in high school, things got really complex: quadratic formulas, trigonometric functions, IMAGINARY NUMBERS? Yuck. One thing you knew for sure was that no matter how "important" mathematics was, it wasn't fun, and it wasn't for you.


This is the experience of most students all around the world, and it's why I decided to become a math teacher. We can do better. 


I realized when I started teaching that I was focused on precisely the things I was telling students weren't as important. Value learning from failure over assessment scores, I would say. "I care about your thinking more than your answers," I remember telling them. But at the end of the day, my grades were what parents cared about and what colleges cared about, and if the students ended the year without "learning how to expand a binomial," I would have failed to get them to where they needed to be, right? So my lesson plans centered around "what" students needed to learn rather than "how." Because of this, most of my students were bored, many struggled, and none were taking away the essential capabilities I knew they needed for the real world.


The true value of mathematics lies in its widely-applicable skills: systematic thinking, logical reasoning, and pattern analysis chief among them. As a teacher, I needed to help my students be creative and resilient problem solvers. I needed them to be more aware of their own learning and take responsibility for setting goals for themselves and figuring out how to achieve them. As someone who entered the world of teaching through years as a student support teacher, I had a few hunches about how things could be different. 


First, I knew I needed to minimize the amount of time I spent up at the board, demanding the entire class's attention. Because every student learns differently, I knew most students weren't getting what they needed through this time, and it was quite boring. Second, I needed to empower students to guide themselves through the unit at their own pace, giving some individuals challenging opportunities to extend their learning as far as it would go. In contrast, others could take the extra time they needed to improve their understanding. As much as possible, students needed to need me less to actually be where I needed to be when I was truly needed. Most importantly, I needed to free up the time in class to encourage the development of those traits, as mentioned earlier, that are helpful in every subject and life in general.


So, I arrived at my current style of teaching, which is quite similar to what many educators call "The Modern Classroom Approach." A quick internet search will tell you a great deal about this, but I'll try in my own words. The students enter the class and situate themselves in the room according to their stage in their learning process. On one side of the room is the Collaboration Station, where students can work together on the acquisition or practice of knowledge, skills, and understanding. Students that prefer to work quietly or independently will sit in the Focus Center on the other side of the room. Behind them is the Quiz Corner, where students test their learning in test-like conditions through online quizzes. Just down the hall is the Recording Studio, where one student at a time can go for ten minutes to record a tutorial video explaining one of the unit's topics. All of the above is guided by the Self-Paced Guide, which my grade 8s call "The Level-Up Sheet." The sheet allows the students to go topic by topic, choosing from three to four different ways to learn maths and then practice, test, and advance their learning. At the bottom of the sheet is some extension topics, which have less guidance so that students are more able to explore new learning and challenge themselves to understand it deeply. At the end of each class, students write a small note to themselves about what they learned that day. I give them feedback on this, as it helps them express their understanding of using the right language. This also helps me see if they've built a misconception that I can help them address.


Vitally, my classroom has transformed from the dry "chalk and talk" mathematics we all knew as students into a lively and engaging learning environment. Students can follow their interests, learn from their friends as well as their teacher, build confidence, and understand more about themselves as learners. Those who work hard see the fruits of their labor, and changing "how" one thinks is at the center. I hope it improves the way students see the subject of mathematics and themselves!