Teachers at the Center: Honing the Craft of Student-Centered Math Instruction

By Kirk Walters
January 9, 2017

Student-centered teaching is complex, demanding work. It requires teachers who are curious and have an unwavering commitment to helping all of their students take charge of their own learning. Inspiring students to learn in this way is not for the faint of heart.

Even strong student-centered teachers know that they must work continuously to hone their craft. Like experts in other professions, they understand that they will never achieve perfection. Rather, they find joy and fulfillment in striving to get better and in the process of improvement.

  Perfection is an impossibility, but striving for perfection is not. Do the best you can. That is what counts. – John Wooden

The Better Math Teaching Network is a community of high school math educators and improvement science researchers who have this “striver” mindset, and I’m fortunate to be part of this group. Our network is committed to continuously improving student-centered math instruction through rapid-cycle, classroom-based testing, drawing from principles and processes of improvement science.

Improvement science has been used extensively in industry (e.g., the Japanese auto industry in the 1980s), but is relatively new to education. At its essence, improvement science is designed to help end-users—in our case, teachers—solve specific problems related to their daily work. Each teacher regularly asks three core questions to guide the problem-solving process.1

  1. What is the specific problem I’m trying to solve?
  2. What change could I introduce to solve the problem?
  3. How will I know if the change actually led to an improvement?

Teachers work in small groups to test and refine similar student-centered teaching strategies, anchored in these three questions. Once strategies are refined, they are shared with other teachers in the network, who use them in their respective student-centered improvement projects. Soon, the strategies will be shared with math instructional leaders, who will share them with teachers outside the network.

  Many students sadly see mathematics as a set of disconnected algorithms to be followed, rather than a powerful, coherent way of thinking and understanding the natural world.

As math educators, our improvement efforts attend to particular challenges related to the discipline. Many students sadly see mathematics as a set of disconnected algorithms to be followed, rather than a powerful, coherent way of thinking and understanding the natural world. Mathematics “makes the invisible visible,”2 and is a much more interesting and relevant subject than typically advertised. Thus, the student-centered strategies our network is testing and refining are designed to counter this prevailing view of mathematics. Our teachers are testing and sharing ways to help more of their students make connections among mathematical concepts, see applications to real world contexts, learn how to make sound justifications, and solve (and persist in solving) challenging problems.

If this work sounds interesting to you, our vibrant community is expanding.  Applications for New England teachers and math instructional leaders will be available on our project website in late February, with applications due in early April. Even if you’re not interested in participating formally, there will be ways to connect with our network and share in the work.

We’re excited about what we’re learning. We hope you’ll consider joining us or being part of this work in some way.  One thing is for sure: the network will be better tomorrow than it was today. That’s pretty exciting stuff.

Kirk Walters is a Managing Researcher at American Institutes for Research and Principal Investigator of the Better Math Teaching Network

1 Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., Grunow, A., & LeMahieu, P. G. (2015). Learning to improve: How America’s schools can get better at getting better.
2 Devlin, K. (2012). Introduction to mathematical thinking. Palo Alto, CA: Keith Devlin.

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