3 Common Math Practices that Need to Die (And What You Can Replace Them With)

Our education system is full of instructional dinosaurs, activities that we do simply because they’ve always been done, for decades, and we can’t imagine classrooms without them. I’d argue that there are more of these dinosaurs in math than possibly any other subject area, so it’s time to reimagine math instruction, bring it out of the Ice Age, and give it a starring role in your inquiry-based, student-centered classroom. Here are 3 practices (and replacement ideas) to get your started, but I’m sure there are more, so be ruthless in slashing anything you feel doesn’t promote curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking for our next generation.

The Hot Seat

Reconsider the age-old practice of giving students time in the hot seat at the front of the class, where the teacher barks multiplication facts for the student to answer within a set time. Automaticity with math facts is important, but embarrassing students that struggle and inadvertently condoning condescension from those that don’t, isn’t the answer. We want students to develop mathematical fluency, but we never want to put students in a position to associate math with feelings of incompetence and embarrassment. If we are assessing automaticity, let’s not assess public speaking and grace under pressure at the same time. As far as I’m concerned, the only time it’s permissible to call a student to the front of the room for an assessment is if they are a first-year student at Hogwarts awaiting an assessment from the Sorting Hat.

Instead try…

FlipGrid: Create the game-like atmosphere that the hot seat (giving the benefit of the doubt) is aiming for, but take the public pressure off. Have students create videos of their math fact fluency with FlipGrid. Set the time constraint to 30 seconds, then ask students to get creative as they record their math facts in private for you to review.

Procedural-Heavy Mathematics

Too many math lessons and assessments emphasize mathematical procedures and neglect mathematical thinking. Using the hot seat example above, yes, we want students to memorize multiplication tables, but we also want them to have the underlying number sense upon which the tables are built. That’s what will set them up for success as they progress into higher level math classes. So, let’s ban procedure-only mathematics. Whether it’s a worksheet, a word problem, or a page from the textbook, let’s never let our students get away with basic procedural recall.

Instead try…

Play by Play: Turn the most mundane and procedural worksheet into a mathematical thinking exercise by having them create a sportscast of their work. Put students in groups of three and having one student complete a problem from the worksheet while another student stands over her shoulder offering commentary on the mathematical thinking his partner is demonstrating. The third student records the other 2 so you can assess the quality of the reasoning and analysis.

Silo Mathematics

Math can be one of the toughest subjects to weave into the rest of the curriculum, so it is often set apart as an instructional silo. We tend to dive into mathematics from 9:00am-9:45am, not to revisit until 9:00am the next morning. But isolating math as a separate content area doesn’t allow students to see how math relates to their everyday actions. Even more problematic, it denies the key opportunities to infuse mathematics with critical and creative thinking.

Instead try…

Math In My Life: Have students recount their day using mathematical equations. For example, if working on fractions, they might say, “I spent 1 hour getting dressed. I spent 1/2 that time arguing with my sister. I spent 2/3 of that time making breakfast.” You can also challenge students to connect what they learned in math to something they learned in another subject area or to something they care about. For example, if working on equivalent fractions, they might say, “I am on page 50 in my novel. That is 50/200 or 25/100 or 1/4 of the whole book.” Encourage any connection, even a silly one, as long as they can explain their reasoning.

Vying for a spot with these top three offenders might be the practice of not allowing retakes/re-dos (which is where most mathematical learning can actually happen) and whole class math instruction (where half the class is bored and the other half is lost). But I’ll save those for another blog!

We are all guilty of unwittingly holding on to outdated practices, so if any of these activities are routine in your classroom, don’t beat yourself up over it. Just give them a second thought, using the filter, “Is this best for my students?” Then consider trying one of these alternatives or adding your own twist to these ideas.