How to Give Kids 'Math Worth Doing'

How to Give Kids 'Math Worth Doing'

aerial shot of cityAsk students: "In this aerial view of a roundabout in Thailand, what do you notice? What do you wonder?" When Northwestern University’s Jen Munson and her team launched an ambitious new website to support elementary school math teachers during the pandemic, they never dreamed they’d be reaching people from 65 countries on six continents.

“We were thinking, ‘how can we help teachers like the ones we’re training in the School of Education and Social Policy or who work with our own kids?” says Munson, assistant professor of learning sciences. “We were thinking locally.”

But tantalizing images–one of the website’s main features– offer a universal language, or at least a visually rich starting point. And, as Munson has found, when students have the chance to talk about what they see–and connect math to their lives–the learning unfolds.

Munson’s project, multiplicity lab, prides itself on giving students and teachers “math worth doing” and infuses teaching with learning sciences and math education. The name comes from its expansive approach: Doing math involves multiple ideas, voices, and strategies. Math also needs different ways of seeing, thinking and being.

crossing railroad tracksThe website launched on Feb. 1, 2021 during COVID-19 pandemic; today it has more than 13,000 users from 65 countries, and more than 100,000 pageviews. The team’s YouTube channel has seven videos and counting. Teachers who sign up receive a free Image of the Week with ideas on how to use it in the classroom.

And though Munson crafted the site for elementary school teachers with a nod to middle school, she began hearing from high school teachers like Brooklyn’s Thomas Rodney, who adapted the content for his tenth-grade geometry class.

Rodney hadn’t seen the faces of many of his students during online learning – just black rectangles. But after using one of the routines to discuss the idea of congruence, “like magic, the cameras came on,” Munson said. “Kids came on to share things they’d found around their homes. It changed his year."

Munson, along with Stanford University’s Jo Boaler and Cathy Williams, are coauthors of the Mindset Mathematics curriculum series. Their approach structures lessons by unit; each “big idea” has a visual lesson, a playful lesson, and an investigative lesson.

As Munson was writing the visual lessons, she saw that regardless of the concept or the grade, showing an image and asking children to make sense of it allowed everyone to be competent. “With an image, language isn’t a limiting factor,” she said. “It’s a low floor-so easy entry point– but a high ceiling because there’s a lot to learn.”

How it works

sewer coverThe goal is to make math visible. Teachers are given two routines to use as a springboard for rich and relevant math discussions. In one, called Look-Think-Talk, teachers show students an intriguing image such a sewer cover from a city street and asked “What patterns do you see?” or an aerial image of tulip fields and asked “What do you notice? What do you wonder?”

Students think it over, then discuss with partners or as a whole class. “The goal is to generate multiplicity,” Munson says. “Multiple ideas, multiple strategies, multiple answers."

The second routine, called Off You Go, uses a classroom or school scavenger hunt format to connect math ideas with the students’ lives. The kids are shown an image of a familiar concept, such as a circle, the number 10, or a pattern. Then they look for other examples of it–at home, outside, in the classroom. Students might take pictures, draw sketches, bring objects to show, or make lists. “Collectively, we’ll be seeing a rich range of representations of a single concept,” Munson says.

The routines don’t have to take up the whole lesson; they can be used in ten minutes. They can be used online or in the classroom. They are also useful for parents who are looking for enrichment. Munson has given the images to her third grader to annotate and mark up and point out the different things that they see.

“What you need is the conversation about it and to have the child bring something back to you,” she stressed. “You don't have to have the mathematical expertise to just to sit in a position of wonder with your child.”

The team:

Munson is a former math coach and elementary and middle school teacher, having worked in school across the US. Her research focuses on designing for teacher learning and understanding how interactions can support both student and teacher learning in the classroom.

In addition to co-authoring the Mindset Mathematics curriculum series, she has written In the Moment: Conferring in the Elementary Math Classroom, a professional text for teachers which is also available as an audio book.

Her lab members include Northwestern learning sciences doctoral students Sarah Larison and Mari Altshuler, and undergraduates Daniel Ro and Trent Zhang.  Larison and Altshuler contribute ideas and create new content, including the site’s videos, while Altshuler manages multiplicity lab’s social media communication. Ro and Zhang manage data, analytics, and website building.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 4/8/22