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I've been teaching high school math for over 25 years. I write about my experiences here and also share activities that I have done with my classes that have been successful (and some that have been not so successful).

Seven Small Changes that Lead to Big Impact in the Math Classroom

Teachers are always changing, adapting and updating our practices.  

In the summer we attend professional development. We go to workshops. We go to conferences. Our schools make us attend professional development sessions during teacher workdays. To maintain our certifications we have to earn Continuing Education Credits (or Professional Learning Units).

Sometimes professional development can seem like a waste of time - especially if it's not math-specific.

(Have you ever been to a workshop where the leader is a former English teacher, or History teacher, or school counselor? Then, when you ask how this practice can be adapted for a Precalculus class they give you a blank stare? Yeah, me too.)

But sometimes professional development can be so good and inspiring that your brain is spinning because you have learned so many great ideas and you want to implement them all!

After over 20 years of teaching high school math, I have learned that small changes in my teaching practices can lead to a big impact. Most of these changes were inspired by some of the conferences or workshops that I have been to. 

Here are 7 Small Changes that Can Lead to a Big Impact in your math classroom.

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.

1. Put the test grade on the last page

This is the latest change that I have made in my regular practice. Instead of putting the student's score at the top of the front page of the assessment, I put it on the last page.  It made a significant difference.

In the past, I have noticed that when I pass back graded assessments, some students like to strategically cover their score with their hand. Students who scored poorly did this, and students who scored very well also did this.

Grades are personal.  Students are under no obligation to share their grades with their peers (despite the fact that many students at my school walk into the room after grades have been posted and interrogate everyone else in the class, "what did you get?")

Now that I write the grade on the last page of the assessment, I don't see students covering their grade and I don't have to strategically hold the papers in such a fashion that no one else can see the grades while I'm passing back papers.

At my school students are not allowed to keep their tests (otherwise, students (or tutors!) share assessments with friends or younger siblings). Another positive effect of writing the score on the last page is that when a student comes to tutorial to see their tests, I can freely dig through all of the tests in front of the student without worrying about the student seeing everyone else's scores.

2. Stop believing there are math people and not math people

There are 2 books that I have recently read that have dramatically changed my approach to teaching math.  

I used to believe the idea that there were "math people" or "non-math people." I remember feeling somehow superior to the "non-math people" because I knew how to calculate the tip in a restaurant and how compound interest works. (I was probably overcompensating for my dislike of writing - and yet here I am - writing this blog post!)

But then I attended a workshop in 2017 by Jo Boaler (author of Mathematical Mindsets). In that workshop, she said, "There is no study that confirms that there are math people and non-math people. It's not as though a baby is born and the doctor labels the child as being either a math person or not a math person."

She says that everyone is capable of learning math - sure, some people are faster at math than others, but that doesn't mean that slower thinkers are less capable.

I was so struck by Jo's message that I even started to require my students to watch this video from Youcubed called How to Learn Math.

If I hear a student excuse a bad grade with, "I'm just not good at math" I try to remind them that everyone is capable of being successful in math, but often students are too busy with their other classes, extracurriculars, and overall, just being a teenager.  I encourage the student to switch to a growth mindset and then to ensure that they are doing all they can during class and after class to ensure they are understanding the concepts.

3. Stop playing Kahoot

Ok, that was a clickbait subtitle. You don't have to stop playing Kahoot altogether, but you should definitely stop playing the traditional Kahoot where the faster students are rewarded.  Perhaps a better subtitle is: Stop rewarding speed.

I mentioned above that I attended a workshop by Jo Boaler in December 2017.  In her workshop (and in her book) Jo discusses the harm in rewarding speed in math class. Students begin to believe early on that in order to be good at math, you have to be fast at math (I'm looking at you Math Minutes!). But people who are slower at math are often thinking very deeply about math. Being slow at math does not mean that you're not capable, it just means you're slower. And that's okay!

Before I read Mathematical Mindsets, I used to play a lot of Kahoot. Some students would try to be the fastest guesser so that they could win the game.  These students wouldn't even read or attempt the question, they would just choose an answer as soon as the question appeared.

In the same class, I had students who could do the math, but they were slower. These students either didn't bother trying the question because they knew they wouldn't finish it in the time allotted or they would work until the last possible second to get the correct answer while the rest of the class is waiting on them.

It didn't take me long to realize that Kahoot was not leading to success for every student. So I stopped playing.  

I switched over to Quizlet Live for a while because at least the class wasn't waiting on 1 or 2 students to finish before moving on to the next problem.  But there is still a speed aspect to Quizlet Live.  So I stopped playing.

If I am going to play a game that requires devices, I choose Gimkit (read more about Gimkit: A Math Review Game here). Or, more often, I prefer to play a game that doesn't require devices nor reward speed (read about some of those games here).

Read more about my feelings about Not Rewarding Speed here.

4. Put desks in groups 

When I got new classroom furniture in 2017, I was most excited about the fact that the tables were dry erase that I didn't think about how having the students sit in groups would impact my teaching.

Now, I wouldn't have my students sit in rows unless, you know, there's a pandemic and we are required to keep the students 3 feet apart. 😧

I love having my students sit in groups.

To see more photos of my classroom read this blog post.

On a typical day, when I am introducing new material, I do a bit of talking about the concept, then I ask the students to talk to each other about how they might solve a problem.  The conversations that they have are often rich with math vocabulary.  I am able to see who is understanding correctly, who is not, who the natural leaders are, who the quiet students are, and who is not afraid to ask their peers for help.

When I ask the students to talk to each other about how to do the problem, then I do less talking, less explaining. You have probably heard of the research that concluded that whoever is doing the talking in the classroom, is doing the learning.  Putting my students in groups is a great way to get the students to talk more and me to talk less.

5. Use Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces

I went to a conference in the summer of 2017 (so much professional growth in 2017!) and one of the sessions I attended was led by two women: Jennifer Fairbanks (on Twitter @hhsmath) and Katy Campbell (on Twitter @kd5campbell). It was about Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces. Their session was inspired by the work of Peter Liljedahl.

(Peter Liljedahl has since published his book: Building Thinking Classrooms - which you should drop what you're doing and order it now if you don't already have a copy.)

In Building Thinking Classrooms, Peter dedicates a whole chapter to how students do some of their best work if they are working at whiteboards that are hanging on the wall - but students could also write on windows or other vertical glass or dry-erase surfaces - hence Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces #VNPS.

Following that session at that conference, I started to make an effort to get my students up at the board to work on problems. I decided to shorten my lectures, take some of those examples that I would have modeled for them, put them on a piece of paper and ask the students to work with their groups at the VNPS in order to solve the problems.

When I first started doing it, I thought that the students would reject the idea. I thought some would prefer to sit at their desks. I thought some wouldn't even attempt to engage in the math. I thought some would prefer to chit chat.  

But what actually happened is I was able to *see* the students do math and I was able to *hear* them talk about it.  In a traditional class that is filled with lecture, I don't get to see what the students can do until it's sometimes too late to correct their errors (e.g. on a high-stakes assessment).  And by getting the students out of their seats and working with their peers, they were actually engaged!

(Full disclosure, my classroom is not perfect. Of course, there are some students whose attention wanes and they get off task, but it's worth it to see what the students gain and what I learn from watching them.)

Be sure to check out my Ideal Math Classroom blog post where you can see photos of my classroom that has one wall covered in glass that we can write on.

6. Use Visible Random Groups

In addition to having students at the boards (or windows) working problems, it's important to have the students' grouping be visible and random. There is another chapter in Building Thinking Classrooms about this. 

Letting students choose their own groups can cause issues with the social dynamics of the students. Creating random groups ahead of time might seem smart, but the students often suspect that the groups are not truly random and start to make conclusions about why the teacher put certain students together (e.g. "She put me in the dumb group.").

I used to use the random name picker from Flippity.net but lately, I just use a deck of cards.  I don't hear any grumbling about why certain students were grouped a certain way. In fact, there is usually some laughter about friends getting paired up multiple times.

7. Reward mistakes

It sounds strange to say that we should reward mistakes. This is something else that I got from Jo Boaler and Mathematical Mindsets.  She suggests rewarding mistakes because when you make a mistake it means that your brain is growing. 

But how do we reward mistakes? It seems backward to give points on a test if they got the problem wrong!  

I haven't fully figured out how to reward mistakes - I certainly like to celebrate mistakes in class when my students ask, for example, why something can't be reduced and I make a big deal about it and congratulate them for thinking the wrong thing because now their brain has grown.

I do like to reward my students for finding *my* mistakes. Any time a student of mine finds a mistake of mine (in class or on an answer key), I give them a sticker.  The students love it! Even the 12th graders. Some of the students make a point of collecting the stickers on their calculators or on their binders.

If you have other ideas for how to celebrate or reward mistakes, I would love to hear them!

Which one of these small changes could you make in your class today? Join my Facebook group and let me know.