Much of the Middle School Math Department and Coordinator of Pedagogical Innovation Elizabeth Helfant attended the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) regional conference in Kansas City last November. Interim Lower School Director and former JK-12 Math Department Chair Amy Scheer reported, “We were able to take advantage of sessions on inquiry-based classrooms, effective use of homework and how to help students achieve deeper conceptual understanding of mathematics.”
The program dovetailed neatly with concept-based and inquiry-led teaching workshops our faculty participated in last spring during the 2018 STLinSTL conference, and which will be continued again in the fall of 2019. “We’re finding new ways to promote thinking, and helping our students deepen their understanding of not only procedures but concepts,” Ms. Scheer said.
Faculty learned new ways to present information in a classroom setting to encourage math students to engage in deep thinking about problems. For instance, teachers randomly assign students to groups and have them write on vertical, nonpermanent surfaces. “There’s a drastic difference in time to task when students are standing up and working on whiteboards or windows,” Ms. Scheer said. “Students start to disengage when they’re sitting too long, and the impermanence of the whiteboards or windows allows them to feel more comfortable making mistakes.”
MICDS Math faculty have embraced these tools, and have also begun to “de-front” their classrooms, which means using creative methods of seating instead of having students face the front of the classroom. This set-up encourages a dynamic, free-form space where students are encouraged to be collaborative.
Teachers are also honing their skills in answering questions that show students are actively thinking, versus proximity questions that arise simply because the teacher is standing nearby or inquiries whose sole purpose is to get the answer instead of comprehending the subject. MICDS teachers are learning to answer with just enough information to give students a push in the right direction, encouraging them to problem solve independently.
Students are also learning how to take meaningful notes, which involves crafting notes after they’ve had their lesson and have had time to practice. “It’s a synthesis of the work that way, and promotes deeper understanding,” said Ms. Scheer. “We are always working hard in the math department to promote productive struggle and have the students engage in the process. This ultimately allows them to transfer these skills to other subjects because they can transfer the ability to think in a problem-solving way.”
The NCTM conference was made possible through the generosity of Carol Loeb ’59, who established an endowed fund that provides math department teachers opportunities to collaborate and learn together.