6 ways to reimagine math that will spark curiosity

More than ever, students are seeking to exercise agency and take charge of their learning.
Jennifer Beasley
Jennifer Beasley
Jennifer Beasley is the K-2 STEMdirector for the Little Rock School District in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The lack of student engagement in post-pandemic math instruction has been a catalyst for K-12 teachers and administrators to reimagine and rebuild learning. During the initial phase of reimagining teaching and learning in any discipline, district leaders start with state standards, curriculum and assessments. Then, they move on to teachers’ and students’ social-emotional needs.

Unfortunately, this approach clashes with the current reality of classroom instruction. More than ever, students want to exercise agency and take charge of their learning. Students have voiced that they need to know why they are learning and have fun while doing it. In this fast-paced and technologically advanced world, teachers have a few minutes to capture students’ attention and engage their curiosity. To capture students’ attention, districts must reimagine and rebuild their academic programs.

I’ve been honored to help the effort to rethink the math instruction in my school system, the Little Rock School District in Arkansas. Working with my colleagues, we have outlined six critical steps to reimagining math instruction that ignites student curiosity, captures their attention and brings positive outcomes:

1. Pinpointing the problem

Before our district could reimagine math instruction, we had to zero in on the problem. The Little Rock School District noticed declines in student enrollment and academic outcomes. While anecdotally we knew student engagement was the issue, we had to investigate further to make sure.

To find the problem, district leadership established a team of stakeholders—students, parents, teachers, principals, assistant principals, district leaders, school staff and the superintendent—to narrow the focus and pinpoint the issue. Gathering a task force to investigate the problem allowed district stakeholders to work through circumstances and scenarios and create pathways to solutions.

2. Establishing a logical process

Insanity is doing the same thing the same way but wanting different results. There must be a logical process to reimagining a thriving math program. Our district placed schools into three networks within the district. Each network has a math coordinator who works with the STEM director (me) to develop math training and assessments.

When leaders are in their network meetings, they focus on their schools’ needs with their assistant superintendent and their math coordinator. I meet with the math and science coordinators to discuss data regularly. The coordinators can dive into the data and support leaders and teachers as they make instructional decisions based on their students’ specific data.

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Once this system was established, our district saw increased usage of our high-quality materials: Illustrative Mathematics, Discovery Education’s DreamBox for K8, and McGraw Hill ALEKS for high school students. We also saw an increase between our interim one and interim two assessments in most schools. This process is still in its infancy and has room to grow because we never stop learning.

3. Finding high-quality instructional materials

A math program cannot thrive without high-quality materials and resources, such as Illustrative Mathematics and Discovery Education DreamBox. Illustrative Mathematics is a problem-based curriculum, and DreamBox is a K8 digital supplemental math resource that adapts to each student. It integrates state-level assessments and the district’s curriculum into its system so teachers can create assignments that align to their state standards and instruction.

Growth and standards reports provide data that our leaders, school leaders and teachers use during their networks’ data discussions. By the end of the data discussions, schools can be confident that their instructional plan will align closely to what teachers need to provide fun and engaging math instruction.

4. Narrowing the focus

The focus for reimagining math instruction is purposefully planning for math discourse. Math discourse should occur during math instruction so can explain their mathematical thinking to their peers and teachers. It is also a chance for teachers to guide students toward their understanding of mathematics.

When our district narrowed the focus of math instruction, it gave direction to district leaders, school leaders and teachers. District leaders also encouraged discourse during other courses. When students talk about their learning and how they think, they take charge of their learning, which is every educator’s dream.

5. Providing coaching

One way to get the biggest bang for your buck is to coach, coach, coach. Coaching is a powerful tool. The coach’s role is to “see” the best in people and “pull” that out of them. Effective coaches nurture people’s innate ability to be great. They have a keen sense of mulling through the weeds to get to the root of that “thing” that is stopping them from greatness.

District and school leaders need coaching, so you do not want to leave them out. Our district restructured learning for adults by repurposing the role of a coach. Coaches are now called teacher leaders and we have them in schools where they are needed most. The teacher leaders lead alongside their principal to coach teachers and instructional leaders through data discussions, planning and implementation of our math curriculum.

6. Reimagining professional development

Purposeful professional development can change the mindset of even the most entrenched educators. When our district started focusing on data—and used the data—we were able to provide the necessary training for teachers. We made sure that teachers understood all the curricular resources.

During our dedicated PD days, we allowed teachers to choose the training that best aligned with their professional growth plan. Our content providers worked with us to provide on-demand webinars aligned with our goals.

With these steps, my colleagues and I reimagined math instruction, ignited curiosity and better captured students’ attention. With that accomplished we feel we have created a better environment that will lead to better academic achievement in math.

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