Sunday, January 14, 2018

Personalizing Learning in Math

If we want to ensure all students are ready for the STEM careers of the future, we need to ensure they are mastering the math competencies required for these roles. I am not the first educational leader to suggest that we need to re-think how we teach math but we have actually shifted our math classrooms to a different type of approach that uses blended and personalized learning. A lot of our model has been based on the work of Jo Boaler, a Professor at Stanford University, that has urged educators to re-think math classrooms for many years. Boaler says: "In some countries, people believe that learning is a long and slow process that happens over time, in all subjects. Here in the U.S., and some other countries, people are quick to believe that if a math problem is hard to solve, then you are not “a math person.” It is difficult to know where this started, but I would say it is linked to the teaching of mathematics. That tends to be all about right or wrong answers and speed." Boaler continues that to have a math mindset students need to have a growth mindset vs a fixed mindset. With a growth mindset, people really believe they can do anything and they can learn anything. And people with a fixed mindset really think their intelligence is fixed — so they can change things only a little bit. Creating the conditions that cultivate a growth mindset is an every teacher and all school activity, not just something that happens in the math classroom. 

Students getting some direct instruction in
one of HFA's three blended math pods.
As a 9-12 school that represents students from 15 school districts, students join our community with varied math backgrounds. In general, most of our students are below the expected grade level in math (yet close or ahead with ELA). 

As a progressive school we knew that teaching math in the standard way would not be our approach. To address the varied math backgrounds and align with our teaching and learning values along with a students' personalized career and post-secondary interests, we primarily decided to leverage the lab-rotation model of blended learning in our math classrooms. 

HFA students all take a math benchmark assessment three times a year through the software provided by our learning partner Imagine Math (formerly Think Through Math). From there they get a personalized pathway (determined through the software's machine learning algorithms) and from teacher input. Students then rotate in math blocks through three pods based on their individual needs. In essence, every student in our school has a personalized learning plan for math and proceeds at the speed appropriate for them. For example, we have a student who has tested out of the highest level of math standards who is in the 9th grade and is already taking college math classes through our local Community College and on the other side, some 10th grade students still trying to master pre-algebra standards. How would a one-size-fits all approach to math help either of these students?

The Three Pods:
1. The first math pod is the Imagine Math pod, students are working to master math standards and concepts at their own pace. They do get individual goals and class goals for mastering these standards. 
Students working at their own pace in the Imagine Math Pod.
2. Teachers use the data and analytics from the Imagine Math pod to pull-out and personalize direct instruction to a group of students and offer more support on a major math standard like slope or congruence, etc. This happens on a weekly basis. Some direct instruction is done through peer-to-peer learning as well. After all, research shows at least 90% mastery of a concept has been demonstrated when a student can teach another. 
3. The project and problem based pod: in this math pod, engineering and science teachers infuse STEM though creative and real-world application. As Boaler has said: "While math is a subject that allows for precise thinking, but when that precise thinking is combined with creativity, flexibility, and multiplicity of ideas, the mathematics comes alive for people."

In addition to these three pods, it's important to talk about staffing and layout of this type of classroom. When we first started, we had on average, 40 students in the room at once with three full-time math teachers. This proved to be quite noisy so we switched locations in our third year to a room that could be made smaller and closed in the center with an accordion door when needed. We now have two full-time math teachers and three others who rotate in from our science and engineering teaching teams (so the math teachers work with every student in the school and get about 10-12 hours of planning a week). This staffing model has been helpful so that math and science units can be more aligned and our focus on maker/STEAM learning can be intentional. In addition to staffing in creative ways, furniture and space makes a difference. In our flex math rooms, students have rolling chairs which can form rows when needed, large smart boards on wheels and grouping tables. The flexibility of the room compliments the flexibility of our blended model. 

So Does it Work?
While we are still evaluating this approach, we have been able to see a few key indicators of success:
1. Nobody should FAIL math at HFA as long as they put in effort and build their growth mindset, even the learners "most behind" are getting strong scores when they put in effort.
2. Personalized learning isn't just about technology; it's about teacher collaboration and creativity as well as building trusting relationships with students; our math teachers are also advisors at the school and teach a section of our leadership seminar class. 
3. Selecting the right software is important; we piloted three or four before selecting Imagine Math. We love that Imagine Math has a real-life teacher available until the evening to support our students just through one-click and embeds gaming and videos. 
4. Peer-to-peer learning is powerful and valuable and it's another way for teachers to assess mastery of math standards. If you can teach a peer who is behind, you know the standard.
5. The students with the lowest benchmark scores were able to "make-up" multiple grade level standards in less than one school year.
6. The highest assessed benchmark students are able to "comp-out" of HFA math and move into college-level math quicker, when they are ready for it vs having to wait.
7. The problem and project based pod allows all students to become creative and engaged in real-life learning and introduces science concepts to truly make our STEM program integrated. 

What Is Next?
Kudos to our lead math teacher, Mrs. Sanders
who has been a pioneer with this form of rethinking math! 
Now that we have been using and tweaking this model for three years, we will begin to track growth on our CWRA+ assessments and ACT Aspire as well as ACT scores. 

  • We would love to do a formal research study and are discussing this possibility. 
  • We may begin to teach higher-level math classes on campus (vs dual enrollment) as more students are ready for Calculus, etc. 
  • We will continue to align math senior year with our students' post-secondary plans and incorporate financial literacy as a graduation requirement. 
  • We do plan to add another staff member dedicated to the math team and still incorporate our science team into the problem/project pod. 

For more inspiration check out this video:





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