» My Math Class Has Changed Forever

» Blog

My Math Class Has Changed Forever

Happy Summer!


I know most of you are winding down towards the end of the school year and I wanted to take the time to share in more detail about using collaborative math teams in the hopes that you will consider using them in September.

Since reading “Mathematical Mindsets” and reading more about Complex Instruction, I’ve been working in different classrooms trying out this way of teaching. The most common feedback I’m hearing from the teachers who are using this method is about how engaged their students are and how much less work it is for them as teachers (talk about WIN-WIN!). They’ve noticed that more kids are participating, especially the vulnerable and struggling students. The ‘top’ students are benefiting equally as are all the ones in between because they are often explaining in multiple ways how to solve the problem. Some of these students are procedurally fluent but this method requires conceptual understanding as well so they are able to build a solid understanding of both! This method was designed to bring equity into the classroom and to eliminate the socioeconomic gaps we so often see. In my observations over the past couple of months, it has certainly shrunk that gap significantly. We also polled students and they love it! In one grade 8 class, all students opted to continue using this method of teaching rather than a more teacher-centered approach. They commented that they were able to get help when they needed it way quicker than in a ‘normal’ class as they always had someone to ask. They also really enjoyed learning multiple ways to solve the problems and learning of solutions that they had not thought of themselves.

Looking at ahead to September, I hope you will consider setting up your math classes using these teams as teaching this way is the only way (aside from using regular partner talk) that we can teach the curriculum competencies and core competencies (BC curriculum) and it is the best way I’ve tried so far for differentiating.

I have been blown away by not only the increased engagement (which is pretty amazing- to see an entire class on task for whole lessons is so rare!) but also by the increased independence, enthusiasm, confidence and conceptual understanding of the students. Students are given a problem and they must work together to understand the problem, and then try to solve it using whatever makes sense to them and then check to see if their solutions are viable. This is what real mathematicians do! I was a bit skeptical at first; worried they would become mired and stuck but, alas, when left to figure it out as a team….they succeeded. Since I’ve now helped start this process and been observing it in a few classrooms, I’ve learned what has worked and what has not. Here are the tips that I found to work best:


1. Teachers must understand the process (read about how to use Complex Instruction properly). I will provide resources that helped me at the bottom of this post.


2. It takes time to set this up; it may feel like it’s wasting precious instruction time but it is so worth it and you will make up the time tenfold once they get going in their teams.


3. The most successful making up of teams have been when the teacher has chosen one good communicator, one student with good conceptual understanding, and one student with good procedural skills for each team of four. The fourth member is usually someone who might not fit into any of these categories. The groups are heterogeneous (mixed ability).


4. Ideally, you would pair this approach with growth mindset teaching as the two complement each other well.


5. Explain to students the skills they will need once they leave school – I use the 4 C’s. I ask them to brainstorm what they think the 4 C’s are (they come up with some other great ‘C’ words like courage, consideration, confidence etc.). The 4 C’s I’m talking about are: Communication, Collaboration, Creative Thinking and Critical Thinking (under which problem-solving, analyzing, summarizing, comparing, etc. fall). Explain to students that in order for them to develop these skills, they must in fact use and practice them!


6. The focus for the first few weeks will be on these 4 C’s more than the math as it takes time to ‘train’ them how to work well as a team. This is done by regularly (almost annoyingly so) interrupting them to highlight the words and actions of teams who are working really well together. For example: “I’m highlighting this team because I heard Anna say ‘I don’t get that, can someone explain it to me?’ and I’m highlighting this team because they are all working in close proximity, literally huddling together to ensure they are all included and participating”.


7. Choose open problems and ask for multi-dimensional mathematics. For example if you are wanting to explore area and perimeter you wouldn’t give them a problem such as: “what is the area and perimeter of a 6 cm by 7 cm rectangle” but rather might give: “Sally has a garden with an area of 24 square feet, what could the dimensions be? What would be the cheapest garden to fence?”. This second problem is open, has more than one answer (to the first part) and is a more complex problem to be solved. I would expand it further and ask for a visual solution to be shown for the garden that is the least expensive to fence. You could also ask for patterns and ask which gardens you would least and most likely see and why – thus opening the problem into something more meaningful, relevant and visual for students.


8. Keep the same teams for quite some time (weeks or months) but switch the roles each week so every student has the chance to be in each role. At the beginnin, you need to hold them responsible for their roles but quickly they take on that responsibility.


9. Provide timely feedback on the math and the collaborative process.


10. Assess individually (formative) often using tickets out the door, weekly quizzes (1 or 2 questions) and provide opportunities for self-assessment just as regularly.


11. Homework can be metacognitive questions such as: “what mistakes or misunderstandings occurred today and how were they corrected?”


I urge you to think about structuring your math classes using this technique as it is so powerful and transformational. I think September is a great time to start as it would set the culture of your math classroom for the year; one in which math is all about making meaning, developing understanding, looking at multiple perspectives, making connections, working together as a team and communicating ideas. I am looking forward to trying this out in some classes next school year right from September as I know I have a whole lot more to learn too and I’m curious about how it affects student learning when done for a whole school year.

The impact of this approach was so powerful that I am working on creating an online course for teachers that give you the tools and confidence to implement collaborative teams in your classroom! Stay tuned for course registration in the coming weeks.


Complex Instruction:

featured in the book “Mathematical Mindsets” by Jo Boaler





Growth Mindset:




Educating Now
was created due to teacher requests to have Nikki as their daily math
coach. The site has lesson-by-lesson video tutorials for teachers to
help them prep for their next math class and incorporate manipulatives,
differentiated tasks, games and specific language into their class.
Teachers who use the site can improve student engagement and
understanding, in addition to saving prep time, by watching a 10 minute
video tutorial and downloading a detailed lesson plan


Join My Blog Newsletter!

* indicates required

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *