Student-Centered Learning in Math: A Call to Action

Math preparedness remains at the forefront of the discussion around college readiness, and is a hurdle for some students. Many states now require that students pass math tests in order to earn their high school diploma. For many students, this is one more item to “check off the list” while in high school. Some students, however, struggle each year to pass the test.
At the middle/high school where I worked, we encouraged our teachers to talk to their students about growth mindset. Simply stated, having a growth mindset means that you know that hard work creates results. You are able to put in the long hours because you believe you can learn the concepts and you don’t believe that intelligence is fixed. In other words, you believe you can learn.
We need to talk to our students about grit and tenacity. We should encourage them not to say that they are “bad at math”, and instead replace those words with a more positive mantra, such as “I am working hard, learning, and getting better with math each and every day.”
This growth mindset approach in classrooms and in schools is part of a larger strategy around student ownership of their own work. This includes students’ knowledge of their own skills, knowledge of their strengths and their struggles, and an ability to advocate for and ask for help as needed. It also means understanding how the learning relates to them personally and fits in with their interests, as well as how the learning can be applied in the real world. In other words, adopting a growth mindset helps create an environment where the math is truly student-centered. The student-centered framework of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation provides a great way to think about ways in which we can encourage these tenants in our classrooms to improve outcomes in math for learners.
If I am a middle school student, here’s how this framework could be applied for me in my math learning:

  • Competency-based math. Yes, I want to be challenged. I want to know that I am not simply going to move ahead in math simply because “that’s what middle schools do” but instead know that I am moving ahead because I have mastered key concepts. I want the opportunity to be able to show that I can do the work.
  • Learning is Personalized. I love to be able to bring my own interests into my schoolwork. I appreciate the opportunity I have to teach others what I am learning and to be a part of group work where my fellow students and I collaborate on challenging “problems of the day” and where we work together to come up with solutions.
  • Learning is Everywhere. I enjoy knowing that what I am learning in math really does matter outside of school. I want to take that math knowledge everywhere with me, and understand, and have experience with, applying the math outside of the classroom. I like it when my teacher presents us with real opportunities for engaging math in the real world. I also like it when I am encouraged to come up the ways in which math applies to learning everywhere, at school and beyond.
  • Learning is Student-Driven. I want to understand my own strengths and struggles with math, and I have a personalized relationship with my teacher so that I can really drive my own learning. I want to be able to utilize technology to enhance and drive my own learning and be an authentic creator for my own math learning. This is preparing me not only for high school math, but also for life-long love of learning across a variety of content areas.

Yes, middle grade math matters. We have a unique opportunity in the middle grades to influence student perceptions of math, their own growth mindset when it comes to learning math (or learning anything, for that matter), and their own ways of understanding how learning can be personalized to them. We know that math is so important as we prepare our students for college and beyond. As others have mentioned, we need to ensure we are giving students an opportunity to learn at grade level content or beyond, and that we are finding ways to help students who need additional support in math while keeping them involved in deep and meaningful ways in their math class. Students who get stuck on working with “fractions” for years while not advancing into algebra may not only be bored, but also only get further and further behind. Encouraging students to work together and work with technology using blended approaches can keep the learning engaging for students at every level.
We can engage students in math. Finally, we need adults in our schools, beyond the math teachers, who also engage students in quantitative reasoning. As educators, let’s adopt a growth mindset when it comes to math. Let’s show students ways that we use math in our various content areas and in real world settings. Let’s model that learning anything new is both rewarding and worth the effort. Let’s encourage our students (and each other) to be open-minded about math, to find ways to make the math meaningful to our lives and to find ways to connect math to other core subjects and projects in the school and beyond.

This blog is the final in a series on blended math brought to you by The Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more stayed tuned for the Getting Smart on Blending Middle Grade Math bundle and see the other posts in this series:

Bonnie Lathram

Bonnie Lathram is a student advocate and former teacher.

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1 Comment

Rita Voit

We need to rethink testing in our schools especially in math. Rather than using test to assign grades, we should use tests as evaluative tools to determine what individual children need to learn. Even if a student 'passes' a test, we should not move them forward to more advanced topics unless the test shows that they have mastered all the concepts that have already been covered. Under the system used by most of our schools today, student's lack of mastery of topics is not addressed until the 'fail' a class. By that time, they need 2-3 years of remediation if they are going to be able to fully understand the material presented.
On the other end of the spectrum, students who demonstrate that they have mastered topics earlier than the standard school schedule should be allowed to progress to more complex and engaging topics rather than being given more of the same type of problems.
In other situations, we don't use tests to determine pass or fail while ignoring the information the test provides. For example, a doctor does not tell us that we 'passed' a blood test, but uses the results to make recommendations. We should look at the tests given in educational setting in a similar fashion.


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks Rita. We support competency-based education and sites like that advocate for it. We also appreciate Sal Kahn's advocacy for competency-based progressions in math.

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