Andrea Ferrero, Co-Founder, Pockets Change

Changing the Equation: Tech + Student Agency = Higher Math Engagement

This week we have another guest blog post from Andrea Ferrero the co-founder of Pockets Change.

Do you love, hate, or fear math? We each find a sense of belonging in one of these discrete sets. Our choice of which set to join also tends to directly define our level of engagement with the subject.

I chose to love math in third grade. It was a difficult decision that came down to two distinct mathematical experiences. The first was being the only third grader in my class to fail the timed multiplication test which was done round-robin style in front of everyone. The second was my dad teaching me open-ended math problems on napkins over pizza. I’m sure you can guess which one led to a love of the subject. Yet, sadly, much of the math instruction happening in classrooms is not far from my experience in third grade. It’s focused on performance, speed, and set procedures. Each time we plan a lesson or pick out a new tool, we have the incredible opportunity to reimagine math and empower students to choose to love the subject.

Fostering Student Agency in Math
Making choices and sharing our input gives us a sense of power and accomplishment. It builds connection to the task at hand and opens our minds to consider the greater meaning and purpose of our decisions and actions. If we want our students to feel engaged in math, they need to actively be a part of the math happening in the classroom.  

Students lead their own learning through math conversations, math practice that promotes risk-taking, and visual representations of their learning.

Student Agency and Autonomy in the Math Classroom from ZIA Learning on Vimeo.

Math Mindsets
Stanford Mathematics Education Professor, Jo Boaler, has been a leading force in sharing strategies to promote student ownership and understanding in math. A key part of her work has focused on math mindsets -- the cultivation of positive relationships with math. Through concrete strategies, math mindsets allow students to find joy and personal success in the subject.

A few quick ways to begin building a Mathematical Mindset Community in your classroom are:

  • Encourage the pursuit of mathematical risk-taking and celebrate mistakes as opportunities for discussion and deeper learning.
  • Use visual modeling, this is particularly powerful with the digital tools available to classrooms. My students always enjoyed the use of virtual manipulatives whether it was me or them explaining the math concept.
  • View and discuss math as a creative endeavor. Ask students to share their process whether the answer is wrong or right, then discuss why the method worked or didn’t.

The Power of Providing Choice and Voice
Bringing this all to life in the classroom might feel a bit like a complex math problem itself. Something along the lines of you have 30 students and they each need to master 3 standards over 4 weeks. Just like a truly inspiring math problem there are multiple pathways to the answer. Giving students opportunities to have choice and voice in the exploration of math can build understanding along with engagement.
  • Try integrating differentiated math activities that give students the chance to choose the path they take to process a concept or the format they use to show understanding. One of my personal favorites is math biographies, where the students share about themselves and their relationship to math using creative expression. I’ve seen this activity take a simple poster form with a series of equations representing the answer to my age, the number of letters in my name, or the number of pets I have. It can also be digital, with students creating short videos, presentations, or hyperdocs to share in a classroom gallery.
  • Explore student-created math games or tasks to review concepts and practice math methods. This started in my classroom as a basket where students could share an index card with a created problem. Over time I expanded this idea, taking the creative games and digital story problems that my students created to show understanding and repurposing them for class review.
  • Dive into real world problem solving. I recently enjoyed watching a middle school teacher facilitate students’ exploration of local ecosystems and an environmental issue - declining trout populations - by having students collect and analyze data using chromebooks, digital temperature probes, and their own trout tank.

Tapping into Personal Interests
Make math personal for students. To truly break down barriers and cultivate a lifelong love of math, students need to see how it connects to them and what they are passionate about.
  • Incorporate universal topics of appeal into the lesson. This could be a global event like the solar eclipse this year or a class topic of fascination. A recent group of my students were personally invested in finding out more about public transportation timing trends.
  • Look at where your students are spending their time and incorporate opportunities for them to tap into that area of interest. One of my second grade students used to spend her time outside of school playing the same digital roller coaster game over and over. She loved the idea of creating a theme park and was willing to spend hours overcoming content that was beyond her current knowledge base to persist and play the game. Seeing this in the dashboard, I asked our librarian to help her find STEM books on the topic. I also recommended a few games in the platform that included the roller coaster or machine building theme while also working within her zone of proximal development.
  • Give the ownership to students. Introduce a concept or strategy and ask them to make the math personal. How does the topic connect or extend into something they currently care about such as saving money for spring vacation or fine-tuning a hobby (I hated fractions until they became useful for baking).  

Tech for Student-Led Review & Extended Learning
Once we get students engaged in the lesson, it’s exciting to see that move outside the classroom where they can begin to reflect on what they understand, what they don’t quite get, and what they are fascinated about. It’s important to equip students to explore these powerful questions with technology in purposeful ways. Each of the following three suggestions also serves the critical need to support students when they get stuck or reach the wrong answer, learning to see math as a creative process where failure is just as important as success.
  • Share online video libraries or even class recordings for students to revisit and replay content as needed.
  • Model how digital tools can be used to support accessibility and visual problem solving.
  • Encourage students to pursue personal curiosity and wonder, and consider sharing through digital media such as creating their own short videos, a class podcast, or an infographic.
As you think about your next math lesson, consider the possibilities - what strategies or tools could change the way your students see math now and in the future?



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