What does problem-based math learning unlock for students? Part 2

When students lead the learning process, they build their connection to and confidence with math. Here's how teachers can find their role in this approach, and lead change for others.

By Amplify Staff | October 10, 2022

Webinar series recap, part 2 of 3

Our webinar series explores how problem-based learning engages all students in grade-level math every day, and how instructors can bring problem-based learning into their classrooms.

We reviewed part 1 of the series in this blog post. Now, in part 2, we dig deeper into this key aspect of problem-based learning: transferring responsibility for learning to the students.

So…now what? “If you watched Kristin Gray’s webinar,” says educator Kathleen Sheehy, “You may be thinking, ‘I learned so much about the power of problem-based learning. Where do I get started?’”

In this webinar, Sheehy joins fellow educator Ben Simon to explore how teachers can truly make that key shift toward student-centered instruction. “It is a journey. So we are going to talk about the small shifts that teachers and others can make that add up to something big,” Sheehy says.

The role of the teacher in student-centered learning

Most adults were not taught to do math this way as kids—and many teachers were not taught to teach math this way. When teachers have a lot of content to get across in limited time, it can feel risky to shift to a style that requires a bit of letting go.

“Student-centered instruction helps us embrace the idea that people can come at math ideas from different directions,” says Sheehy. “It’s collaborative and social. It focuses on problem-solving with an emphasis on multiple strategies and flexible thinking.”

Problem-based math learning may not be the sage-on-a-stage model, where the teacher stands up front and acts as the only math expert in the room—but it doesn’t mean the teacher relinquishes control, either. You can have both student-focused instruction and solid classroom management.

“It’s not a free-for-all. It’s very structured,” says Sheehy. “The teacher also plays a role in providing instruction and then guiding their students to the key takeaways they want for them.”

Building stakeholder investment

To be most effective, problem-based learning needs to be not only focused on the student but supported by the community as well. This means you aren’t the only one who needs to adjust to the new approach.

What actions can you take to build stakeholder investment? How can you get the principal, other teachers, parents, and kids (who are also accustomed to another style of learning) involved and excited?

Be able to articulate a really compelling reason why student-centered instruction is right for your students. The following are just a few research-backed examples:

  • It helps students develop deeper and longer-lasting mathematical understanding.
  • It helps students grow as problem-solvers, engaging them in productive struggle and collaboration and learning core life skills.
  • It helps students develop a growth mindset, which reduces math anxiety, boosts math confidence, and helps them relinquish the idea that someone either is or is not a math person.

When the teacher is the supporter of knowledge, not the gatekeeper, students lead the learning process and feel more confidence with and connection to math, says Sheehy.

How and where do you communicate these ideas? Sheehy and Dixon have found that providing a short hands-on math experience with problem-based learning examples can be very effective. This enables stakeholders to experience the difference themselves, especially when conducted in a low-stakes scenario like a parent math night or PD training.

Sheehy also suggests asking them what they think the impact of student-centered learning would have been for them when they were students. “We’ve heard people say things like, ‘I would have been way less anxious about math if I’d learned it this way,’” she says.

Making a plan to start the shift

“We’re not expecting to create a masterpiece overnight. It takes time to develop the teacher and student skills and to establish everything that needs to be in place,” Sheehy says, “You can’t get better at all the things all at once.”

Where to start? “Size up the shift,” she says, and make a plan.

“Using very clear look-fors can enable educators to decide where to focus,” says Sheehy. “‘What would I look for if I walked into a classroom that is beginning to engage in student-centered instruction?’”

Here are a few key elements to look for:

  1. Management of materials, routines, and classroom setup in a way that facilitates collaboration.
  2. Establishment of a classroom community (using norms charts, etc.) around the core idea that everybody belongs there and is a mathematician.
  3. A teachable structure that models the thinking process and creates predictability, allowing students to focus.

Sheehy and Dixon have found that a focus on these three areas helps teachers name what they are trying to improve in a systematic way.

“Once I tackle this first area and feel successful with that, I know what I’m going to tackle next, and after that,” says Sheehy. “These look-fors can help you make informed decisions that, little step by little step, can help you eventually get to where you want to be.”

How Amplify Math supports problem-based learning

Amplify Math is designed to support problem-based learning, so you’re making that shift every time you teach. The program specifically supports teachers in the planning and delivery of problem-based lessons, and enables them to monitor student progress and differentiate instruction based on real-time data.

Lessons start with warm-ups that tap into prior knowledge, then move into problems that require collaboration to solve. Teachers monitor, engage, and ultimately synthesize student work into the main idea. There are also ample opportunities for practice and reflection. 

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Mathematics Problem-based learning

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