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Students and teacher playing math games.Welcome back to Voice from the Field! This is the time of year on the farm when we re-evaluate and make plans on how to improve crop yield and animal production. In school districts, instead of working on improving crop yield and animal production, we are working on improving student achievement and instructional quality.

We are well into the school year, and we need to look toward a strong finish to the year while keeping our eyes on the big picture of improving our practices. It is time to roll up our sleeves and dig in as we seek ways to enhance practices within our classrooms.

A shift in math

When examining the implementation of the Iowa Core, the area that is receiving public attention is math.

Math instruction is significantly different from the past. Several years ago in math, the problems were answered one way – the teacher’s way – and each step had to be followed with no variation. Today’s math classes have students determining the best way to solve problems, the way that each individual can best understand the math concepts. The Iowa Core math classroom is filled with discussion using metacognition – stressing active student thinking, and with three common questions:

  • How did you solve it?
  • Why did you solve it that way?  
  • How does your solution compare with your partner’s solution?

According to the Iowa Core website, rich mathematical tasks involve teaching through problem-solving with problem-based instructional tasks. These tasks are at the heart of teaching for understanding and provide a deeper understanding of how these math concepts can be applied to solve problems outside of the classroom.

Derek Roberts, Maquoketa High School math teacher, says, “I love when kids ask ‘when will I use this?’ Sometimes what we work on you will rarely use outside of math classes, but what you will use every day is the logical thinking, the backwards problem-solving.”

From the Iowa Core website, the ideal vision of problem-based instructional tasks include

  • Helping students develop a deep understanding of important mathematics;
  • Emphasizing connections, across mathematical content areas, to other disciplines, and especially to the real world;
  • Making tasks accessible yet challenging to all;
  • Providing an opportunity for problems to be solved in several ways;
  • Encouraging student engagement and communication;
  • Using connected multiple representations; and
  • Encouraging appropriate use of intellectual, physical, and technological tools

Rich mathematical tasks involve problem-solving but also involve using distributed practice that is meaningful and purposeful. Meaningful and purposeful learning not only applies to student learning but also teacher learning.

The math studio

In some districts across our state, the Area Education Agencies (AEAs) are providing professional learning in the form of a studio framework. This is an example of job embedded professional development that takes place in the math classrooms.

Teachers learn engaging instructional strategies and use peer observation to assess the impact on student understanding. This format is used to encourage purposeful, genuine questions to learn about students’ mathematical thinking.  

Our AEA is assisting teachers in districts to use the studio process.  They facilitate discussions focused on math research-based strategies and use multiple formats including video to provide an opportunity for peer observation. According to Sarah Harbaugh, numeracy coordinator for Mississippi Bend AEA, “Any time teachers can view another classroom or have a peer observe them using a researched instructional strategy is a win.”  

Numeracy Consultant Kim Awalt explains there are multiple ways to deliver a studio model. A classroom studio is implemented where a strategy is selected to use in a classroom based on a “snapshot” of data and classroom observations.

Within a Professional Learning Community, teachers bring back a lesson where the strategy was used along with student work samples to discuss results in a collaborative framework. This lesson may be in the form of a video or reflective log shared with co-workers. Discussion focuses on enhancing instructional practices and analyzing how the strategies were implemented.

This type of professional learning is not “one and done” because it is embedded throughout the school year. This process may include informal observations by peers in the classroom as an educator models the strategy. Follow-up discussion occurs on how it was taught, its purpose, the effects on student achievement, and next steps based on the data collected.

In the studio model, classrooms are looked upon as a place of action research focused on student understanding. Teachers ask, “How do our students respond when I use these strategies and how is that better or worse for improving student understanding?”  Ms. Harbaugh states, “This type of reflection creates an opportunity for teachers to look at instructional impact on the understanding of ALL students.”

She goes on to explain that “in math we are stressing active student thinking. We want our students to analyze problems and think through efficient strategies to solve the problems. Teachers are preparing our students by slowing down and taking the race out of math. They prepare lessons that allow students to apply their learning to new problems and compare strategies with one another.

“Math time is viewed as an exploration and should be filled with student voice. Students inquisitively ask questions of one another and share ideas. It is no longer enough to memorize the steps to pass a test. Students will enter a technological world where information is at their fingertips, so our schools are challenged to ensure our children have the skills to analyze the abundance of data in their lives and apply it to creatively solve complex problems.”

Bringing in others

In some districts, special education teachers are brought in with a focus on co-teaching in the math classrooms, while in other districts, instructional coaching is just starting to set the foundation for a studio approach. In the districts that want to extend the impact of the studio framework to other subject areas, discussion is focused on the question: How do we take best practices in teaching and spread them throughout the building?

A studio model of professional learning is a framework that can extend to all content areas in a district. The framework encourages collaboration, communication, and critical thinking – the three C’s of the 21st Century. According to Tony Wagner, author of Change Leadership, we must create collaborative inquiry for continuous improvement. With an emphasis on working strategically, the studio is one method that focuses our attention as educators on continuous improvement.


Points to Ponder

  • How does your school support learning and teaching?
  • How are you assuring that learning involves deep understanding?
  • What role does the PLC framework provide for enhancing student achievement in your district?



Iowa Core:

Teachers Development Group:


  • Five Practices in Orchestrating Mathematical Discussions – by Smith & Stein
  • Number Talks:  Helping Children Build Mental Math and Computation Strategies (Grades K-5) – by Parrish
  • Making Number Talks Matter (Grade 4-12) – by Humphreys & Parker
  • Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students' Potential Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching - by Boaler


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Posted by : jschmidt@maquok...