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Leveraging Learning through Rich Math Tasks: 4 Actions to Move Learning Forward in the Wake of the Pandemic 

Lately it seems that our inboxes, news feeds, and social media streams are flooded with worrisome messages about “COVID slide” and “Learning Loss.” While it’s true that the past year has been filled with challenges, we invite teachers, parents, and other stakeholders to join us in a new mission: Let’s ditch the deficit mindset! 

Yes, opportunities for new learning may have been limited or even lost over the past year, but we assert that students possess many strengths and much prior learning that can be leveraged as we move forward. Here we share four actions that we believe to be the foundation for leveraging learning and adopting an asset-based mindset about our students.  

Consider an example: Imagine a doctor specializing in elective surgery has not entered an operating room for the past nine months after her practice effectively shut down due to directed health measures. Throughout this time, she has been interacting with her patients via tele-medicine appointments. Do we imagine that this doctor will lose her ability to perform the operations she knew how to do before the pandemic? Of course not. Might she be a little rusty? Sure. And perhaps she missed out on some opportunities to pick up new techniques. But still. She knows things. And when she returns to the operating room she will be able to leverage her prior learning and move forward. 

We believe the same is true of our students (and yours!). With careful planning and attention to Access and Equity, tasks that engage students in Productive Struggle, and a focus on Strengths Spotting and Making the Mathematics Visible, teachers will make space for students to leverage their learning and demonstrate their brilliance. 

1. Ensure Access and Equity 

How can you ensure that each student has equal access to the mathematics we teach so that every child can show or find their brilliance? As teachers, we need to develop an awareness of our daily actions within our mathematics classrooms be it in a virtual, hybrid, or face-to-face setting. This requires us to be fully present and intentional in what we say and don’t say, who we call on to share thinking, how we respond to and validate our students’ ways of thinking (including our body language and facial expressions), and the contexts we present to students so that they see themselves and/or their interests reflected in what they are learning. 

Example: A teacher intentionally selects a task, Maya’s Advice, because it provides multiple entry points for fourthgrade students. As she launches the task, the teacher asks students to use agreed upon hand signals to communicate when they are ready to share an answer rather than calling on the first hand raiser. The teacher then strategically organizes students into heterogeneous small groups, partnering students together who use different strategies so that each group member can share their thinking and make connections to the reasoning of others. The teacher facilitates group work, making space for students to ask clarifying questions, revise their own thinking, or agree with their peers’ ideas. During a whole class discussion following the group work, the teacher listens intently to students so that she can accurately represent their thinking on the board, being mindful not to privilege particular student’s ideas over others. Each of these teaching decisions helps to create an inviting space for students to engage with mathematical ideas where each and every student feels safe asking questions and knows their contributions will be acknowledged and valued (Kobett et al., 2021). 

2. Support Productive Struggle 

Much has been written about the importance of productive struggle for learning mathematics. When we create opportunities for our students to grapple with mathematical ideas – to engage in doing mathematics, we are laying the groundwork for new learning. Critical to this is the careful selection of high-quality tasks paired with high-quality implementation.  

Kobett, B. & Karp, K. (2020). Strengths-based Teaching and Learning in Mathematics: 5 Teaching Turnarounds for Grades K-6. Newbury Park, CA: Corwin and Reston, VA: NCTM 

A well-chosen task ensures that each and every student can enter from a place of strength, leveraging what they know to grapple with new mathematical ideas or novel contexts. When students are engaged in productive struggle, teachers have a window into their prior learning. What are students’ go-to strategies? What do they do first when presented with a mathematics task? What is correct about their thinking? What is still developing? As teachers answer these questions a path to new learning begins to emerge.  

Example: A teacher selects a task, Rectangle Relay, that engages fourth-grade students in exploring whole numbers and their factors. The task begins with a discussion of the factors of 16. The teacher has noticed that some students are not yet fluent with their basic facts. Rather than eliminating opportunities for struggle, the teacher provides collections of 16 color tiles for students to arrange into equal groups or rectangles (Kobett et al., 2021). This teaching decision facilitates productive struggle because it allows students to grapple with the mathematics central to the task (what are the factors of 16) by arranging tiles in equal groups or rows and columns. As students work, the teacher has the opportunity to observe strategies used and facilitate connections to students’ prior learning. 

3. Focus on Strengths Spotting 

As students engage in doing math tasks in the wake of learning interruptions, it might be tempting to provide just-in-case scaffolding – to make assumptions about “learning loss.” Engaging in strengths spotting can combat this deficit approach to learning. High quality tasks can showcase dispositional strengths and strengths related to math practices/processes as well as content related strengths. Start a task off by providing students opportunities to collaborate with others. Challenge them to share their own ideas about the mathematics involved in the task. As students share their thinking, listen to them with genuine curiosity, and notice and call attention to strengths. Noticing the strength is step one. Name the strength publicly and translate the strength by explaining to students how it supports mathematics learning. Finally, be sure to appreciate and value the strength (Kobett et al., 2021). 

Example:fifth-grade class engages in a task, Ryan and Rachel’s Debate, exploring the relationships between corresponding terms of two numerical patterns. The teacher begins the task by asking students to agree or disagree with a conjecture. Students initial thoughts are recorded on a class T-chart. Throughout the task students are encouraged to edit and revise their thinking. As students share how their thinking has changed or grown, the teacher notices and names both dispositional strengths and strengths in reasoning. For example, perhaps one student demonstrated perseverance by trying multiple solution pathways and another student noticed patterns in a peer’s work. Students in the class are more likely to leverage these strengths in the future because they understand how it supports their learning (Kobett et al., 2021). 

4. Make the Mathematics Visible 

As you monitor student thinking and observe students working in pairs or small groups, you take note of the varied representations utilized. You might think to yourself, “This is going really well, students are curious and having fun.” And then, you notice that there are only three minutes left before class is over. How do you proceed? 

You will want to select and connect student strategies and solution pathways, and the underlying math in the task. By highlighting such connections, we can draw attention to the mathematical structures and relationships that are critical for students to understand yet may not be obvious to everyone. 

Example: During a Google Meet, a fourthgrade teacher organizes her class into teams, asking each team to select a student leader. The team of student leaders will pick a mystery number when they are in breakout rooms. As the student leader gives clues about the mystery number, students in the class will make and record educated guesses about the number. In order to make the mathematics visible to all students, the teacher creates a Jamboard for each student and has them represent their guesses on an open number line. This teaching decision provides students with opportunities to reason about range and to connect their number line representations with the idea that knowing that a number is “closer to” one value than another means knowing that the number is greater than or less than the point on the number line that is halfway between the two values (Kobett et al., 2021). 

Leveraging Learning 

As you step into your classrooms tomorrow, we encourage you to consider how careful attention to and planning for Access and Equity, Productive Struggle, Strengths Spotting, and Making the Mathematics Visible might support your students. What strengths do each of your students possess? What prior learning can be leveraged to make connections to new mathematics concepts? When we focus on these assets that students possess, we support student agency by encouraging them to be sense-makers and to take ownership of their own mathematics learning. Ditching the deficit mindset demonstrates to students how we value the unique contributions they each bring to the mathematics classroom. 

Beth McCord Kobett is professor in the School of Education at Stevenson University, where she teaches and supports early childhood, elementary, and middle preservice teachers in mathematics education.  

Delise Andrews is the grades 3–5 Mathematics Coordinator for Lincoln Public Schools in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Sorsha-Maria T. Mulroe is a mathematics coach at Running Brook Elementary School in Howard County, Maryland.  

Together along with Francis (Skip) Fennell and Karen S. Karp, they are the authors of Classroom-Ready Rich Math Tasks for Grades 4-5: Engaging Students in Doing Math (Corwin, 2021). 

Written by

Beth McCord Kobett is professor in the School of Education at Stevenson University, where she teaches and supports early childhood, elementary, and middle preservice teachers in mathematics education.  

Delise Andrews is the grades 3–5 Mathematics Coordinator for Lincoln Public Schools in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Sorsha-Maria T. Mulroe is a mathematics coach at Running Brook Elementary School in Howard County, Maryland.  

Together along with Francis (Skip) Fennell and Karen S. Karp, they are the authors of Classroom-Ready Rich Math Tasks for Grades 4-5: Engaging Students in Doing Math (Corwin 2021). 

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