Deborah Ball Asks Math Teachers, What Hooks Your Students into Math Instruction During Covid-19?

  • Online learning can create an opportunity for teachers to dive deeper into math instruction concepts without having some of the time constraints of face-to-face learning. 
  • Remote learning presents a unique scenario in which students can persevere in mathematics as they explore and collaborate to solve challenging questions. 
  • Encouraging students to apply math to real-world scenarios can lead to more meaningful learning experiences. 

As virtual learning has been adopted into classrooms during Covid-19, educators have worked quickly to redesign instructional methods to create engagement and drive student learning in a remote learning environment. 

As teachers, we know that the engagement components of a lesson are essential to promoting student learning. In a mathematics classroom, many engagement pieces are done through hands-on learning and enrichment via math instruction manipulatives. In virtual learning, how can teachers recreate those same valuable enrichment opportunities to drive students?   

“This is a moment to take a step back and think about the things that really could get more kids hooked into enjoying math [and] thinking mathematically,” said Deborah Ball, a practicing math teacher, professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, and the founder of Teaching Works.

In this interview, Deborah discussed the opportunities that distance learning brings to math instruction. As a result of students learning from home, they have more time to explore and work on critical thinking math questions and concepts to foster their love of math.  

Deborah was interviewed for the teacher professional development blog PLtogether. You can watch the interview segment above, and we’ve shared some of the highlights below.

Guiding students to discover their own mathematical hook in learning

Math instruction curriculums are often filled with several targeted skills for students to master. And with limited time in face-to-face learning to expand upon a skill, students rarely get the chance to explore a concept fully. 

“We know that for children to engage in some pretty significant mathematical problem solving, that takes time and in school, we’re often so pressed for time, you have a math period in a math class, and it’s followed by [another] class. And there isn’t the time that it takes to do what we call persevering in mathematics,” Deborah said. 

The flexibility of distance learning has provided a chance for math teachers to create powerful learning experiences for virtual learning students. With the time constraints of traditional classrooms lifted while learning at home, students can focus and work on problems over a longer period of time. These concepts can be worked in groups, partners, or broader groups and be used later to drive asynchronous discussion between peers in the virtual classroom.

“This is a moment to consider problems that have a lot of math packed into them but aren’t actually quite so easy to do in school,” said Deborah.  

Deborah believes that by using more challenging math problems, students have the ability to view concepts from different perspectives while practicing the basic skills they already have. This can also ultimately pique the interest of students and lead them to develop a love of mathematics. 

Engaging, challenging math problems often empower students to drive their learning

With more time for students to focus on math problems in a virtual learning space, teachers can modify their math instruction and math problems to maximize student learning. 

When adjusting questions for remote learning, Deborah said, “I think that [adjusting instruction] is something for us to think really hard about rather than worrying about whether every single piece of the current curriculum we work with gets transmitted to home.”

By implementing concepts that require students to take their time exploring, they can guide their learning. To make the shift into higher-thinking math problems, teachers can assign various questions such as no-solution problems or infinite solution problems. While students work toward the solutions, they are able to apply basic and targeted math skills that are noted across the curriculum. 

According to Deborah, these types of problems with either no or infinite solution problems are “interesting because many of them contain opportunities to practice very ordinary skills of mathematics. But the bigger picture of the problem is something a lot more fundamental, like the idea of solution space that’s infinite.”

Allowing students to find their “hook” in mathematics can drive student success. For students to find that hook, teachers will need to transform past math instruction methods to fit student needs in distance learning. Deborah suggests that rather than assigning questions 1-50 in a textbook, it is more beneficial to create rich problems that students can really break down and explore to get hooked into. 

To create meaningful learning, “allow kids to stretch and not hit the ceiling right away, not trip, but be able to expand both their sense of playfulness [and] development of ideas, said Deborah. 

Adapting the curriculum to learning at home

Implementing mathematical concepts and allowing students to apply them in their home can significantly impact a student’s understanding. Developing a correlation between what students are learning and their personal experiences at home can make a meaningful imprint on student learning. 

Regardless of the tools a student has access to, Deborah believes that many math questions can correspond to concepts that are pertinent to a student’s home environment.  This can help a student recognize that math isn’t always numerical. 

As a result of asking probing questions, students are able to open their minds and apply math concepts to situations they may have never considered “mathematical” before. Asking families to participate in these enrichment questions with students can also help the learner identify a mathematical structure within their learning.   

Through providing students with rich, engaging opportunities to navigate in learning math online, students can find their hook and develop their love for mathematics that will ultimately drive their discovery. By taking a little more time to develop questions and activities to enable students to think through their work, they can complete meaningful math experiences every day.  

“Teachers [need to be] able to be released from thinking they’re just taking their curriculum and putting it into zoom into meetings for kids,” said Deborah.

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