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6 Ways to Transfer Responsibility in Math

When I first came uppn the title of Tracy Zager's newest book title, Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You'd Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms, the parallel that came to mind was a line from Commander Chris Hadfield about professional drive. During a Reddit AMA (AskMeAnything), Hadfield was asked by a student how to become an astronaut, and he replied with a reflection on any professional goal you may have:

I can't say that teaching was where I always envisioned myself, but when it felt right I felt compelled to, as Zager titles, be the teacher I always wanted.

I started by dressing the part: for my 6th grade class at Voorhies Elementary I arrived in suits, sportcoats, pocket squares...anything that could be perceived as "too professional for a teacher." During a surprise visit, our superintendent smirkily asked my principal, "He doesn't dress like this EVERY DAY, does he?"

"No," she responded, "sometimes he wears a bow tie."

I basically wanted my students to have Mr. Feeney from Boy Meets World, down to the tweed jacket with leather patches. Not that I recommend modeling your methodology after TGIF mainstays, but when I went back to watch old episodes, I did so under the lens of a teacher and noticed something...Feeney never really did a ton of talking in class. Those kids were asking the questions way more than he did. They trusted him to be the resource, and when they sought clarity, he questioned and cued, then let go.

Well written details for a Friday Night screenplay,, but more so professionally obtainable, especially in the realm of elementary math classes.


This summer, our district is moving to a conference model for personalized learning and I have the opportunity to share the Strategy Resource Bank with our teachers as part of a session on facilitating math strategies. In lieu of the entire workshop, here are 6 strategies to inspire and encourage students to try things differently and stake ownership of their own learning:


When was the last time your students actually read from a math book? If you truly want students to Own a concept, allow them to own the research behind its. Inform students that they will learn about a skill by investigating sources. Provide them access to textbooks, online sources, examples from your own hand, and Allow them time to report back with the range of strategies and methods they discovered.


The work of Regina Payne and Brian Bushart has gained traction lately, and with good reason. Their work with numbers word problems falls right in line with mathematical practices and abstract approaches to concrete tasks. Here's the idea: take the numbers out of existing word problems. Notice the difference between these two problems and ask: how would students approach this?

1. Joanna begins her homework at 2:45pm and takes 75 minutes to finish. At what time will Joanna be finished with her homework?

2. Joanna begins her homework and takes some amount of minutes to finish.

Instead of focusing on values and calculating in the second one, often incorrectly or with an improper operation, students focus on a plan. After developing a plan, the students are given some, then all of the values and the question. By the time they receive the question, they've either already anticipated the answer or discovered it as part of the previously given information.


I do not intend to delve into the ethics or state of homework in 2017. If it is to be assigned, give it a deeper purpose. Robert Kaplinsky's work with open ended math work can extend beyond school hours; it just takes flipping the script. Instead of a standard 10-20 problems where students find an answer, strip the assignment down to 2-3 problems, PROVIDE THE SOLUTION, and ask students to show 2-3 different ways to reach that solution. When you take the anxiety of "the right answer off the table, students feel free to explore using their own understanding OR the support of those around them.


It is in our very nature to perform at a higher level when we are aware that we will be observed by an audience. Gallery walks have gained traction, especially in Ontario, and there's plenty to support its application in science. The math component is especially powerful when students know in advance that a gallery walk will take place.


Teachers are moving away from the idea that facts and algorithms are necessary before students can interact with word problems or complex tasks. Instead, offer a higher-order problem at the onset to begin with a deeper exploration of a concept. A higher-order thinking problem is one where there are multiple possible answers which are not all obvious, and most of all, you as the teacher are generally uncertain of what students will produce. Everything after this is a load off for students, especially since they've developed their own foundation.


Some of the most engaging math activities I've presented involve shifting the workspace that students interact with. The two I'd recommend are butcher paper and 360 walls.

  1. Butcher paper: Useful for more than just bulletin board backing, butcher paper allows students to expand the space with which they explore concepts and provide a safe place to see what classmates are doing. Because the work isn't hidden, students are more likely to ask each other questions about their approaches.

  1. 360 Walls: If you have Ledges for student whiteboards, or plenty of lamination plastic for butcher paper, then you can have a 360 wall classroom. The idea is that students can stand and work-out problems, and while doing so can't see the work of others within the space. You also have the added benefit of having students think while out of their seats, which ties in to much of the brain science presently out there in education.


This is just scratching the surface of the variety of methods used to encourage students to experiment with familiar strategies. The key is to dig in and try something. As educators, if we hesitate to try something because our kids can't do it, then when given the chance they'll unfortunately prove us right.

Let me know how it goes!


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