Think back to when you were a student in Grade 3. What did the classroom look like? How did your teacher teach? What sorts of activities would you do in math class? If your class was like most, you probably sat in rows of desks and learned your math facts by completing worksheets and participating in speed drills.

We talk with school districts around the world and there is clearly a movement happening in education. “Modernization” is what it’s most commonly called. Research has shown that, implemented effectively, these modern methods have the potential to have significant positive impact, but making the pivot isn’t easy and, generally speaking, districts struggle to support teachers in making the shift – particularly when it comes to math.

Is “Modernization” Just Another Buzzword?

We educators sure love our buzzwords. Personalized learning, blended learning, 21st-century learning, inquiry-based learning, student-centred learning, modern learning, and the list goes on and on. It can be easy to get bogged down in semantics or swept away by the latest trend. Further, if you ask ten people to define any of these words, you’re likely to get ten different definitions. We like to think of “modern” education as being a series of practices, as opposed to one amorphous thing that you either do or don’t do. 

 Here are some of the pervasive characteristics of the pedagogies we see districts and classrooms trying to implement:

  • More collaborative lessons and projects with lots of student-to-student conversation;
  • More centre-based learning;
  • More opportunities for students to make their own decisions, as opposed to being prescribed what to do;
  • Teachers playing more of a facilitator role rather than a purely instructional role – valuing the asking of a great question over delivering a specific directive;

Through our conversations with educational leaders, some common themes have emerged both in terms of the obstacles they face and their approaches to overcoming them. Here is what we have learned.

Even on a good day, teaching math to early learners is really hard. Students come in with little basal knowledge. Attention spans are short. Lesson planning time is squeezed into an already jam-packed day. Moreover, math anxiety is rife for teachers as much as it is for students. Layer in the fact that this movement is a foundational shift in culture that basically says, “oh, by the way, we want you to teach differently now,” …teaching early math is no walk in the park. This fundamental issue belies everything else in this article. It’s the root cause of so many of our challenges. So we can’t forget: Teaching math is hard!

Investing in PD is a logical step in trying to implement new instructional strategies at scale. We see districts offering lots of seminars, both online and live during PD days. Seminars are easily scalable in terms of reaching large groups of teachers. As a result, it draws the focus of many districts’ PD efforts. Seminars, workshops, and other forms of large-scale learning opportunities such as this are only one part of the professional learning equation, though.

 One of our partners introduced the concept of the 70/20/10 Model of Learning Development to us. To summarize, the model suggests that 10% of learning and development happens as a result of coursework and training, 20% from developmental relationships (i.e. coaching), and 70% from challenging assignments (i.e. doing). It’s worth stating that this is a model and not a research-backed fact. That said, anecdotally, it does make some sense. Consider, for example, how much you learned about teaching during your formal education versus what you’ve learned from actually teaching. 

Yet, in virtually all forms of professional learning, not just in education, we tend to put emphasis on courses and training, and less emphasis on coaching and on-the-job learning. However, we’ve seen a lot of districts shifting their thinking to invest more in coaching resources that support teachers more directly. This does not necessarily mean hiring more math coaches. It means refocusing an existing team on scalable coaching methods like facilitating communities of practice in and between schools. Creating safe spaces for teachers to talk gets them to open up about their anxieties, celebrate small successes, and ensure that they feel supported.

“We have schools teaming up for PD days to allow for more collaboration and sharing between schools. This has made it that much easier for us to share our messaging and supports with the teachers as well as time for them to collaborate and learn from each other. This year, I have also started a Monday Math Minute. Each Monday I send out a Monday Math Minute that has two parts: a theory part to educate teachers and a practical application that they can use in their classrooms in short order. The response has been great!”

Shelley Gartner – Elementary Math Consultant
Calgary Cathloic School District

‘Modernized’ instruction is a departure away from one-size-fits-all approaches. Some teachers do amazing things with direct instruction and individual practice, but modernized classrooms prioritize personalization through student agency. The challenge here is knowing how to effectively assess students in open environments.

 Teachers generally have a good sense of whether students are meeting desired outcomes, but can struggle with measuring the depth of their understanding. One-on-one conversations is one method teachers use, but this is typically too time-consuming to be a practical form of formative assessment for all students.

 Also, initiating and running these conversations isn’t easy. Teachers need to know the right questions to ask, the right things to observe in their students, and how to turn those observations into meaningful insights. This is an advanced skill that requires a great deal of focus, commitment, skill, and knowledge. Like we said…teaching math is hard! But we’ve seen an amazing commitment from districts and teachers to grow in this area.

We’ve seen a proliferation of professional development efforts focusing on asking better questions to individuals and groups and leading rich conversations that reveal student progress. Some of the work we’ve seen around this is truly inspiring!

Centre-based lessons are also becoming more pervasive among PD priorities. These allow teachers to involve multiple students at multiple stages of learning at the same time, observe their conversations and interactions, and develop a quick sense of where they are without having to sit down one-on-one.

Digital resources, applied thoughtfully, can provide additional formative assessment support. Although a teacher should not rely on them entirely, equipping teachers with resources that provide insights, not just raw data, can help them better understand where their students are and what they can do about it.

Modernized education involves placing formative assessment insights at the centre of lesson planning. It proposes two very important questions: “Where are my students?” and “What can I do about it?” Ideally, every lesson plan would be developed with a keen eye towards each student’s individual needs. Lessons would focus on helping each student close learning gaps as identified through ongoing formative assessment.

As mentioned previously, teachers generally have a good sense of their students’ abilities. They know that Charlie, for example, is struggling to skip count by 5s, but understanding why Charlie is struggling with skip counting, and what types of activities can help you target that learning gap is an incredibly challenging thing to do. Add in the fact that Charlie is just one in a class of 22 students and it becomes nearly impossible.

Districts are recognizing the importance of student agency when it comes to creating truly student-centred lessons and are focusing on resources that give students and teachers a lot of flexibility. Resources focusing on construction-based tasks allow students to explore concepts in a way that is interesting to them which gives them a sense of ownership over their learning. Math talks are also becoming more pervasive as part of daily math lessons. They are a great way to get students thinking about problem-solving as being more open and exploratory rather than prescribed applications of rote skills. 

To support teachers in incorporating these activities into their lesson plans, more districts are focusing on trajectories, especially in the early grades – careful sequencing of building blocks that form the foundational basis for student conceptual understanding of math. Training on this is growing, but whereas this is an advanced topic in which implementation can be challenging at first, some districts are also emphasizing spiraling curriculum when coaching teachers. This provides a more accessible first step in transitioning away from didactically following curriculum documents to the word and helps teachers better understand what to look for during student-led explorations.

“We help teachers see the connections between the different strands and how to blend them together to build deeper understanding.  Not just teaching from a textbook page by page.”

Bart Vanslack – Math Consultant
Toronto Catholic School District

Typical core resources tend to be quite didactic – prescribing strict guidelines and sequences through which the curriculum should be covered. They do not provide the flexibility that most districts we speak with are looking for.

Supplementary resources, digital and otherwise, are regularly made available to schools as well. However, many are relegated to a means for individual practice, a time-filler for those who finish early, or a “fun” way to round out a Friday afternoon. Individual practice is certainly important, but unless teachers have flexible resources and the training to use them effectively, it can be an easily overused instructional strategy.

When the core resources and supplementary resources aren’t enough, teachers turn to Google, Pinterest, and Teachers Pay Teachers. This is probably THE most common source of frustration we hear from math consultants. These places are rife with rote practice activities that should form only a small part of the modern classroom, if any at all. On top of that, these resources often have dubious alignment with the regional curriculum and are based in poor pedagogical practice that could develop bad habits and mindset in students.

The key to championing these challenges appears to be ensuring teachers have access to resources that align with district goals and philosophies and helping teachers use them with intentionality. Some districts go as far as to restrict teachers to a select set of tools that are flexible, diverse, and well-researched. Math Coaches find this approach beneficial because their implementation coaching efforts can become more strategic. They report having greater predictability when it comes to supporting teachers due to the consistency between schools’ toolkits. Some resources also provide district-wide assessment and usage data that can further inform PD decision-making.

Repositories of open-middle activities are also making it easier for teachers to personalize instruction. Many districts have begun developing their own library of activities. Either the district math team cultivates resources they’ve found, or they develop their own materials from scratch. In either case, districts who have taken this on have reported that this can be taxing on resources. Maintaining and updating such a repository can be challenging and requires time and financial investment.

Third-party resource repositories are emerging and given the cost of creating and maintaining their own, many districts find it to be a worthy expense. District admins recommend vetting these resources according to their adaptability, accessibility, research-backing, and student engagement to ensure maximum value.

Above all, teachers want to do the best they can for their students and if we are to be bold enough to suggest any change to the way they do their job or to their pedagogical beliefs, we had better be ready to identify and curb any obstacles that might get in the way. A movement towards modernization and more student-centric, open learning environments is a monumental change and we are still working to better understand the barriers to entry for many teachers, schools, and districts.

None of this is to say that great teachers who are uncomfortable making this switch are not still great teachers – there are amazing things happening in classrooms of all shapes, sizes, and pedagogical philosophies. However, with a growing appetite among schools for this classroom model and an increasing body of research pointing to its potential impact, knowing what obstacles teachers may face and being prepared to address them is an important first step in supporting teachers through this transition.

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  1.  Sparks, S. (2019). Study: Inquiry-Based Lessons Led to Bigger Gains.
  2. Wood, E. (1988). Math Anxiety and Elementary Teachers: What Does Research Tell Us?
  3.  McCall, M. et al. (1996) The Career Architect Development Planner
  4.  EdReports (2018) Why Materials Matter
Written By: Matt Murphy

Written By: Matt Murphy

Matt Murphy is the Educational Designer for Zorbit’s Math Adventure, a K-3 game-based learning platform for the classroom. Matt has a Masters degree in Curriculum Design from the University of New Brunswick and has over five years of experience working in educational technology as an Instructional Designer, and Gamification/Game-Based Learning Consultant.


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