Saturday, August 31, 2013

Opportunity to Model Math Problem-Solving

We have been struggling with the Common Core State Standards for math.  Our teachers have been studying and trying to align their mathematics instruction with the CCSS since the standards were released a few years ago.  However, implementation without gaining a full understanding of the CCSS with its Mathematical Standards of Practice led to some frustration. After analyzing our students' math scores and reviewing released items from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), we knew we had to change the way we teach mathematics at our school.

We have been concerned about mathematics instruction for several years now.  Working closely with Dr. Julia Myers, a former parent at our school, we identified areas of need and planned professional development sessions for groups of teachers, grade levels, or the whole faculty. Over the years, we implemented Lesson Study, discussed ways to use children's literature to teach math, followed the Standards-Based Change Process for math, and had numerous school-wide workshops and professional development sessions focused on math. (In fact, I just went back to my old files from 2007-2008 and retrieved an activity we used on Math Misconceptions because it so happens that I'm presently reading a book titled Math Misconceptions.)  Despite all the different professional development activities we planned for our teachers, however, teaching and learning of mathematics has not made much of a difference at Hale Kula as evidenced by our fluctuating scores on statewide assessments or national screening tools.

This disparity between what I envisioned for math instruction and what was actually happening in classrooms was troubling to me.  I believe that the majority of our elementary school teachers feel more comfortable teaching language arts than they do teaching math, and although many have changed their math instruction to include the use of manipulatives or technology, we weren't seeing the results in student math performance.

Our math instructional coaches and I had honest discussions after we reviewed grade level student work for a problem-solving activity we assigned earlier this month.  After much honest reflection, I realized that my idea of problem-solving was not the same as the teachers', and that it was my lack of clarity in providing guidance that led to the disconnect between what I was expecting and what was actually assessed.  What could I do to correct this disconnect?

Fortunately, we had a school-wide Wednesday meeting scheduled for that week.  I decided on my plan.  After sharing brief observations about the grade level problem-solving tasks and student work samples, I read the description about the CCSS Mathematical Standard #1 from a Math Coach's Corner poster.  I asked the teachers what stood out for them after hearing this description, and they shared phrases like "stand back," "let them grapple," "use questioning strategies," and "provide support without giving the solution away."  In our effort to have students "feel" successful, we were depriving them of the opportunity to "make sense of problems and persevere in solving them."

We then assigned a problem, an SBAC-released extended response item, and teachers got to work.  I felt proud as I walked around, watching them as they worked, and noticing the strategies they used.  Teachers were attacking the problem from different vantage points; some were using the calculator on their phone while others were thoughtfully figuring out what they needed to do to come to a solution.  The discussion afterwards amongst four teachers, all from different grade levels, was equally valuable.  Teachers were clearly demonstrating the Mathematical Standards of Practice by justifying their process, questioning others about their reasoning, using mathematical vocabulary, communicating clearly about their process, and most importantly, they were making sense of the problem and persevering!

Modeling problem-solving by having teachers be the students was invaluable.  They saw the importance of the process and having students participate in discussions.  They realized that while the answer is important, having students explain their thinking is more important because we need to see where the errors are and what concepts might need reteaching.  Additionally, teachers realize that a good problem allows multiple entry points and that we need to give students time and encouragement to persevere.

In their reflections, teachers shared ideas on how we can improve problem-solving at Hale Kula. We look forward to continued growth to "Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them."


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