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5 Easy Ways to Support Students in Struggling Productively

Teaching is on the job training, so when my students were stuck on a problem I would immediately come to their rescue. I did this because I saw all my mentors do the same thing. I never thought there was anything wrong with the way that I guided my students through their frustration. That is until I attended a National Council of Teachers of Mathematics or NCTM conference.

It was in this session I learned that I wasn’t supporting my students in their productive struggle. As a matter of fact, I was a part of the problem.

Ask Students to Explain and Justify

Asking students to explain and justify their answers is the first step in supporting your students with making sense of complex math concepts.  Discourse is the mathematical communication that occurs in a classroom. Effective discourse happens when students articulate their own ideas and seriously consider their peers’ mathematical perspectives as a way to construct mathematical understandings. The  Professional Standards for Teaching Mathematics identifies communication with discourse as a key component, as one of the six Standards for teaching mathematics. 

Even if you teach students who are working below grade level you can ask the students to explain their thinking. The path that you take to get the students to explain and justify their thinking has to be scaffolded. For example, in my math intervention classes I teach the bottom twenty percent of the ninth graders. Imagine twenty-four students in a classroom who for the most part have experienced very little academic success.  I teach my students to become aware of the stimuli by using Thinking Routines. 

These routines are scaffolded and slowly weaved into my questioning during my math lessons.

Use Math Tasks that Promote Reasoning

Getting students who are working below grade level to authentically engage in a cognitive demanding math task without disconnecting; can be difficult but not impossible.

Scaffolding or chunking  instruction for these learners is essential. Without the scaffolds the instruction will not be accessible for the below grade level learners or other special populations. Math Tasks provide students with the opportunity to make sense of complex math concepts by discussing mathematics with their classmates.

Create Opportunities for Discussion

In my classroom, I set the expectations for math discussions using suggested sharing guidelines from the book, Intentional Talk

Since I’ve been providing opportunities for discussions and making it a priority in my classroom, I’ve learned that beginning with the Open Sharing strategy lays the foundation for all future math discussions.

The Open Sharing strategy gives my students the opportunity to learn how to hold productive math discussions without arguing or degrading one another.

During the discussion, I use accountable talk question stems such as, Do you agree with…. Or Would you like to add to what ____said?

There are other sharing structures that are in the book. I’ve found that two new structures in a school year for my students is good enough.

Provide Access to Resources

If you regularly read my blog posts,   you know that I’m a huge fan of Google Classroom. 
When I first started using Google Classroom, I didn’t have a clue about  how I wanted to integrate it into my classroom.

My second year using the platform I realized that instead of giving my students paper resources I could link videos and upload resources to Google Classroom. Creating a Skill Builder and Math Reference Tools section in Google Classroom has been a lifesaver. 

Pose Questions that are Based on Student Reasoning

One of the perks of working in a large urban school district is that I get access to some good training. Well, sometimes. 

About two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a training, Problem Solving in the Classroom. This wasn’t your typical problem solving training. The problem solving activities were based on the Mathematical Process Standards. I’m going to pretend that these aren’t the 8 Math Practices from the Common Core State Standards. Moving on. Lol.

The way that Lead4ward applies the Process Standards to problem solving is unique. The tools to know has three  questions that guide the students through solving the problem.

  1. Do you understand the task?
  2. Do you know how to start the task?
  3. Do you have a strategy to solve the task?

If the student answers yes to  all of the questions then they can go ahead and solve the problem. If they answer no to one of the questions there are questions that can be asked to help support the student with solving the problem.

For example, if the students response is no to do you understand the task then you could ask them any of these three questions:

  • What are three important details of the task?
  • What does the task want you to answer?
  • Is there any information not important to the task?

I really like this approach to problem solving. As you probably already know, students who struggle with math lack the ability to get themselves unstuck. These questions provide support for them by getting them to reason through the problem solving process.

I don’t like to see my students struggle because it’s frustrating for me and them. Know how to support them through this struggle without requiring them to think is worse than seeing them struggle.

Download My Checklist of Teacher Actions that Support Students’ Productive Struggle!

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I help math teachers who teach high need students to effectively manage their classrooms and deliver high quality math instruction. Learn more about me


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