Redesigning the Math Classroom using Personalized Learning

My math time is not optimal. To begin with, I have significant issues with the idea of what mathematics content consists of. Mathematics is about problem solving, finding patterns, asking questions, and thinking logically. It is not about the rote memorization of outdated numerical algorithms. Students today no more need long division than they do buggy-driving. Calculation is faster and more accurately done by computer.

However, until more people begin to recognize this, obsolete math skills will remain “tested” and therefore central to our math curricula. Given this reality, what can I as a teacher do to best meet the needs of my students? How can I give them practice in problem solving, logic, and critical thinking; while still giving them the skills based instruction required by the state?

I believe this is where a move toward personalized learning comes in. With these thoughts in mind, I began a systematic overhaul and revisualization of my math period. I took the framework of the Daily 3 Math that I used last year and have added a layer of intentionality and personalization that was lacking last year. This is the result:

This complex ecosystem of elements is necessary in order to create an environment that fosters student agency, collaboration, and critical thinking. It is a system that hand fundamental control over student work to the students themselves. It gives them personal control over what they learn and how they learn it.

Personalized Pacing
A key component to this system is that while there will be a basic scope and sequence set by me, students are (at any time) free to ignore that scope and sequence in favor of their own interests and pacing. Given this emphasis on student control, regular check-ins with each student via individual conferences will be crucial to making sure that each student is making progress and not simply floundering. If a student is having difficulty with their pacing, or seems to be drifting, this is where I will step in as the teacher to bring them back to the scope and sequence in order to scaffold them into making adequate progress.

This system will require diligent note taking and scheduling in order for me to monitor progress. However, given that I already use a compatible system of tracking in the CCPensieve that I use for reading conferences, adding a layer of math conferences should take no extra organizational output on my part.

No Direct Instruction
Given that research on brain functioning and attention span is very clear, I was already limiting my direct instruction to 10-15 minutes each day. Even then, however, only 50-60% of my students attend to what I am saying and most instruction is either tuned out or quickly forgotten. This is a huge amount of time to waste each day. Since 15 minutes of instruction meant that each of our Math Daily 3 sessions was (by necessity) capped at 15-20 minutes, this gave the students little time to truly explore. By giving up talking to the whole group, we will hopefully be able to make three 25 minute sessions a reality. This will greatly increase the amount of time students have to work.

Replacement for Instruction (i.e. flipping the classroom)
So what replaces me talking and instructing in front of the class? Self-paced instruction via videos. There are hundreds of videos online for every conceivable math topic. In addition, my students will be frequently using Kahn Academy which includes instructional video on each topic. If a video is unavailable, or I want something taught a specific way, I can create a video for students and post it on our YouTube or blog in practically no more time than it takes me to deliver the same lecture in front of the students.

The huge advantage of videos vs. me lecturing live is that students can choose when to use the video (if at all) and can replay the video at their convenience should they need a reminder, something they can’t do to my live lecture. Another advantage of videos is that the videos can be assigned as homework so that no class time need be spent learning the material. Our time can be spent fixing misconceptions, practicing skills, and aiding any students who need extra assistance.

In addition, any video that I create/find can be added to the site where I can pause the videos to add comments, add follow-up questions, or even quizzes.

One final piece to this puzzle: It will often be in our best interest to have the students be the ones to find the videos that we use. Imagine a homework assignment where students are required to scour the internet to find the 2 best videos on adding fractions and submit them to me. Students will have to watch multiple videos (thereby learning the content) in order to find the best ones and I will end up with a library of videos to be used in the future.

EdCamp Model
In addition to the use of videos as instruction, the EdCamp model holds a significant amount of promise as an instructional tool for students. Again, this is a method that gives agency and control over to the students, forcing them to be accountable to their own learning and needs. This model gives students the chance to identify areas of strength, weakness, and interest. It gives them the opportunity to seek out others with those same needs/interests in order to help and instruct each other. It is my hope that this mindset will begin to seep into other areas of their work as they become more comfortable with seeking each other out for help.

This would not be a daily method of instruction, but would rather be utilized in a bi-weekly rotation with our complex problem solving routines.

Problem Solving
Giving students an opportunity to work in groups on complex, multi-step problems is a crucial piece of getting students to think critically. This set of routines takes most of a class period and involves giving students into groups and giving them a complex problem to tackle with no help from the teacher. It gives them a chance to work on their own, collaborate with their small group, compare ideas with the whole class, and then come up with a final answer with evidence. Using problems that solicit thinking on a variety of problem solving strategies and discussing those strategies will be key to this process.

While this set of routines for complex problem solving has been part of my class for years, I hope to make it a more formal rotation with the EdCamp model, with each one taking one part of a bi-weekly rotation.

Work will be a variety forms as needed. Sometimes the Everyday Math Journal or games will be the best place to practice; sometimes it will be something like However, given that self-pacing will be a key element of our math time, Kahn Academy will likely fill a majority of the role for our daily work.

There will also be time each day for students to write about their thinking, solve word problems, write word problems, and show their knowledge in creating video or coding. Creating and maintaining a task board will be crucial to the management of each student’s time and tasks. Making sure to have each student verbalize their working time tasks before each session will be important in order to give each student the message that their time is valuable and that they are accountable to themselves and their learning.

This will also be the time during which I meet with students for conferences and small flex groups for accountability and additional assistance or instruction.

In this model, students will be responsible for pacing themselves. In order to achieve this goal it will be equally important for students to keep track of their progress and how they are mastering material. We are still held responsible for each of the state benchmarks and learning targets, and so tracking student progress through the list of learning targets will be essential.

I will be creating a spreadsheet of each of the learning targets and giving a copy to each student in order for them to track their progress. When they feel that they are ready, they can take the district learning target test for the benchmark. I will grade it, and share feedback with them. If they show mastery, they may move on, if not, together we will generate a plan for their next steps.

In addition to the learning target tests, students will be required to create some sort of artifact showing their mastery of the content before they can take the test. It could take the form of a video, and game that they code, etc. As long as they can demonstrate mastery of the topic, I will encourage them to be creative with this process.

Together it is my hope that these two methods of assessment will give students a sense of control over their learning. By giving them control, I hope to make their math instruction more relevant and motivating for them.

A final piece of this puzzle will be gamification. Since students are tracking their own work and monitoring their process, it would be nice to be able introduce an element of gaming to add to the experience. At the moment I am planning to use Classcraft in order to give experience points and awards for the successful completion of each benchmark. It is possible that we will add other tasks and items to the game as we work on this process together.

This is a newer element for me, and as such, will be built together as we move through the year.

This is still very much a work in progress. As I look at this flow chart I am struck by the distinct lack of activities for students to practice their critical thinking skills with. I need more and I need to see how it works in an actual classroom. However, all my experience in getting kids to be independent workers points to this being a successful and achievable model. I’m excited to try it out.

If you have any feedback or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment.

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