Just Success – Shifting the Structure of Math Class
As educators and adults, we know the formula for being successful in a math class. Engage in problems, ask questions, take notes, complete assignments, ask more questions, study, and then master tests! Unfortunately, our students have not always mastered this, and our traditional model of math classes has not effectively taught this to students, especially those students that have struggled with math.
We decided as a math team that we only wanted students to experience success in our class, so we were going to ensure they had put the work in towards mastering a concept through practice and studying before we would let them assess on a standard. This shift in our model, while subtle, created a positive feedback cycle for kids that reinforces that when you work hard, you get smarter. Moreover, it’s created a structure in our classes that has facilitated increased student confidence, increased student ownership, and greater mastery.
We were particularly interested in how this model would help students who have traditionally been unsuccessful in mathematics. When we say help, we define that as not only helping students more effectively learn a new concept, but we mean help students develop a sense of who they are as a learner, and internalize the idea that success is a function of hard work.
For too many students, their experience has been to try hard in class, and yet for a variety of reasons not find success. Especially in our high needs schools, these reasons include excessive absences, lack of focus as a result of personal factors like trauma or hunger, lack of materials, gaps in previous understandings, and other factors that affect all teenagers.
The reality is that many students don’t have these habits and have not been placed within a structure to learn these habits.
Our traditional model of instruction accommodates neither for students falling behind, nor for addressing the negative self perceptions students create when they are unsuccessful. While some students overcome falling behind by coming after school for office hours, getting a tutor, or re-dedicating themselves to class, the reality is that many students don’t have these habits and have not been placed within a structure to learn these habits.
We’ve implemented this model, and initially when students participate in it, their habits are quickly revealed. Students that have been successful in a traditional model continue to be successful, and in fact even more so as they never have to pause for remediation, class disruptions, or reviewing material they mastered but their classmates didn’t. Students who had not been successful are progressing, but at a slower rate. There are two key differences, however, for the students that are behind. The first is that math is less stressful – while they are going at a slower pace, they are not faced with managing stress from not understanding what’s going on in class – they are making appropriate leaps forward on new topics that they can handle. Second, they start to internalize that not only can they be successful, but that that success is up to them. When they make this realization, they have a clear pathway forward to catch up with the class pace and continue mastering new material. That pathway was unclear to them before, but this structure allows for students to begin to shift these habits.
The conversations from students has switched from “I don’t get it” to “I haven’t learned that yet”.
What we’ve seen so far is that in addition to seeing in class assessment scores rise, the biggest shift we’ve seen is with student agency. The conversations from students has switched from “I don’t get it” to “I haven’t learned that yet”. It’s switched from “They never taught me that” to “I need to practice this more”. What we’ve worked to do through changing our systems and implementing this program is create a structure that allows students to only experience success, and take full ownership of their next steps in learning.
In our next post, we’ll describe how the switch to this model has allowed for more opportunities to engage in rich math tasks.