Breaking Old Traditions and Changing Mindsets
in the Math Classroom
A genuine connection between academic knowledge and real-life application is arguably the most important element of learning. Oftentimes, this is missing in math instruction. A traditional math classroom is extremely teacher-centered, also known as “sit and get” learning. The teacher stands in front of the classroom lecturing students, hoping that by copying what they see, the students will understand how to do the math. In addition to the lecture format, math skills are often taught in isolation, with application incorporated at a later time. Students aren’t given an early opportunity to attach the importance of skill to its real-world relevancy. In a traditional classroom, students are expected to master the skill alone before they are offered a chance to use it in a critical-thinking-inspired situation. The attention span of the current generation of students we teach is being pulled in too many directions for this style of teaching. Teachers have to compete with these distractions by making their content as relevant to students’ lives as possible. Students nowadays need to know why these lessons in mathematics are important; and need help attaching the skills that they learn, to their long-term conceptual understanding, through rich tasks and project-based learning. There is a plethora of research available supporting project and problem-based learning in mathematics. This literature review is a comprehensive analysis that will highlight research that supports project-based/student-centered learning as opposed to traditional/teacher-based learning.
This study addresses the importance and benefits of the project and task-based learning. A student perspective is collected and analyzed to determine if math teachers should refrain from the lecture-style approach to mathematics, and move towards problem-solving environments that create connections to the real world and provokes critical thinking. The overall goal of the project is to produce a data-driven article convincing math educators to reconstruct their lessons from traditional learning to project-based learning. The project starts with a literature review, analyzing several bodies of research that examines the struggle for students to learn math, and the evidence currently available to support project-based math instruction. Next, I surveyed several groups of students at my school, to collect actual data from the population in which I teach. The findings from the literature and data analysis were used to draw important conclusions on how math teachers should proceed with lesson planning and delivery of instruction in the upcoming school year.
I chose to survey students to analyze their beliefs to see if it is aligned with the research shown through project-based learning in math. Raw student data was collected through a survey of 8th-grade students from a collaborative math class; a general education math class; and an accelerated math class. Students were given 9 questions to answer honestly and anonymously. The survey asks them about their preferred learning style; math strengths and weaknesses; and feelings towards tasks and projects.
The questions in the survey were designed to gauge how students think they learn math best and their opinions of math projects. I intentionally surveyed three different student populations that perform at a range of academic levels from the lower achieving math students to the highest achieving math students in the school. The results from the survey are displayed through charts. Analysis of the various charts leads to findings and conclusions that will either support or oppose the theory of project-based learning being a stronger instructional approach in math class than traditional teaching has been.
Student Data Analysis
Results for each question are given for the Collaborative Math 8 Class, General Education Math 8 Class, and Accelerated Algebra I Class
Question 1: What type of learner are you?
The majority of the students surveyed expressed that they are more visual and kinesthetic learners, as opposed to auditory. This implies that students learn math best through seeing and doing in the math classroom. Tasks and projects provide more learning opportunities for students to learn based on their preferred learning style than the traditional lecture method of teaching.
Question 2: How do you prefer to practice mathematics in school?
In the collaborative classroom setting, containing a blend of special education and general education students, most students want that constant teacher guidance that lecture-based teaching provides. The general and accelerated populations prefer to work with a partner or in groups. Tasks and projects allow for more collaboration within the classroom, which is what most students desire while learning math.
Question 3: What best describes your reading ability?
Student ability and comfortability with reading are important when implementing tasks and project-based learning. The trend in the data shows that there is a correlation between reading and math. The strongest math students are also the strongest readers. The struggling math students acknowledged that they are not all strong readers. This data implies that there is a correlation between reading and math ability. Math tasks and project-based learning is an excellent way to incorporate reading practice across curriculums.
Question 4: What are your biggest issues with learning math in school?
The data shows that students believe the biggest issue in learning math is the lack of connection being made to the real world. This category received the most votes in all 3 levels of learners. Tasks and projects are designed to present students with a real-world issue/scenario and use mathematic skills and reasoning to find solutions.
Question 5: Which activity do you still remembering doing in both 6th through 8th grade.
According to the data presented, all 3 math classes remember challenges brought forth through tasks and projects more than they remember problems practiced in textbooks. Regardless of how much they resist pushing themselves past their cognitive comfort levels, they remember when they are challenged in math class. Tasks and projects provide a rich learning experience that goes beyond recall and affords students to hold on to learning experiences for years.
Question 6: Which activity did your favorite math teacher do to make you enjoy their class?
It is clear from the data that students do not like the lecture approach when learning mathematics. They prefer for teachers to talk when necessary and then allow them to reason and solve the problems. This moves teachers to more of a facilitator role and creates a student-centered learning environment.
Question 7: Can you list math projects that you completed in class?
The students in the collaborative setting stated that they would not be able to list any math projects that they’ve completed in middle school. This could be due to poor memory or that they’ve never been exposed to tasks and projects in any of their math classes. The impact from tasks and projects appears to be greatest within the general education population. This subgroup is typically the largest in schools. The data shows that students connect with math through tasks and projects.
Question 8: Which did you enjoy most about working on those projects?
The results in this question reveal that students like to be creative, collaborate with classmates, and get away from the skill drill that is found in textbooks. They are not yet comfortable making mistakes through the process, nor presenting their work to their peers. Making mistakes and learning from them is how math is learned. Presenting your solutions and steps to solving a problem is a life skill that will be used in adulthood through jobs and careers. This further supports the need to implement tasks and projects within math classrooms.
Question 9: Do you wish your math teachers would incorporate more projects and challenging projects instead of worksheets and textbooks?
The majority of the students surveyed wish math teachers would use fewer textbooks and worksheet practice and provide more learning activities through challenging avenues of assignments.
The research presented in this study supports the notion of the task and project-based learning being beneficial in mathematics classrooms. The articles stress the changing of student dynamics and evolving technological society. The student survey highlights what they are looking for from math teachers. Teachers can no longer depend on traditional, lecture-style methods to effectively teach math concepts to today’s adolescents. Students need to connect the numeracy skills they learn, to bigger concepts that solve real-world problems. Obstacles are standing in the way. Students are going to remain reluctant to accept the challenge if teachers do not accept it first. There needs to be complete teacher buy-in to pursue the minds of young people to step out of their comfort zone enough to allow the process to lead them to deep, conceptual learning. Teachers also need to be willing to learn along with their students. Math teachers need to deviate from the belief that they have to constantly show students how to do the math, and create more of an inquiry-based environment that allows them to be responsible for their mathematical thinking.
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