Re-thinking How I Teach Math. Part 1: The question, the rationale and student opinion.

In part 1, I will focus on the student side and changes that have been occurring in my own practice. In part 2, I will focus on data and conclusions collected from math teachers at Crestwood Preparatory College and discuss what I think this means for the department as a whole.

I’m going to cut to the chase and pose THE Question:

How might we build capacity in math teachers to:

  1. determine the best balance between PBL/inquiry vs. content? 
  2. implement it in meaningful and effective ways?

The Rationale

If I’ve spoken to you about my journey before, then you already know I went on a bit of a research kick after attending Michael Moore’s (@mmoore) PD last year on observations and conversations. During that session, I had some of the most influential discussion to date on what math teaching needs to look like right now–that is, problem-based, inquiry-focused and student-centered. There were several teachers who were implementing what I now believe are elements of best practice in their own classrooms. I followed that up with a great discussion with Lisa Dickinson (@ldickinson) on how she implements problem-based learning (PBL) at RSG. It was from her that I looked into Carmel Schettino and that, in turn, led to me an incredible wealth of information and resources (

So, the question wasn’t if PBL and inquiry learning were important and necessary elements of teaching math today. The question was, how on earth do I do this effectively? And how do I help others start doing this effectively? On top of that, I wanted more opportunities for students to collaborate–formally and informally. So, a second major question at the time was how to infuse collaborative learning so that it became a seamless and natural part of math learning.

Subsequent information collected from conversations with other teachers (thank you Jenn Gravel @jgravel l for sharing your ideas and successes in using whiteboards in the classroom) and from additional research indicated there was a real impact of having students work at whiteboards. Peter Liljedahl found it’s easy to implement, effects are felt immediately, there is long-term buy-in and grade level doesn’t seem to affect this retention. See his paper Building Thinking Classrooms here:

So, last summer, we got all the math classrooms retrofitted with more whiteboards. Whiteboards for you! Whiteboards for you! Whiteboards for youu!!!! It was my Oprah moment.

Data and Conclusions Drawn from Student Interviews

On Collaboration:

The 6 students I interviewed all commented positively with regards to collaborative work and whiteboards. They all:

-enjoyed working in groups to discuss solutions and assist one another
-preferred working out challenging problems together at the whiteboards, rather than at desks
-felt it was a good change from lectures or independent work
-expressed wanting more group-focused whiteboard activities in a variety of capacities (problem-solving, review, homework take-up, during lessons)

YESSSS!!!!! I knew what the research said, but I honestly didn’t anticipate it would have such a positive effect on every student I talked to. I was VERY excited by this. 

On Problem-Solving:

Student comments here were less clear. The majority of interviewees couldn’t recall experiences where they really enjoyed problem-solving in math class. A few linked it back to collaborative problem-solving that they’ve done at the whiteboards (which was really good to hear). However, this general lack of knowing, pointed to a gaping hole in my math teaching. Students don’t have favourite experiences related to problem-solving because they haven’t done it, or they didn’t realize they were doing it (that messaging then is on me), or did and it was “MEH.”

So. There is a lot of work to be done here. But, also TONS of possibilities!!

Action Plan Outcomes and To do’s:

  1. Continue the course with regular whiteboard use as a means for collaboration and PBL/inquiry-learning.
  2. Take PBL in my grade 12 data management class to the next level. The plan is to have students pose a big question or take on a large problem that will guide all their learning in the second term (collecting, organizing data, one- and two-variable stats, perhaps even throw an interview with an expert in the mix). I’ll use the gold standard PBL wheel by PBLworks to guide me ( I have Robert Porteus @rporteous, Holly Jepson-Fekete @hjepson, and Anthony Chuter @achuter to thank for their guidance and encouragement in taking on this risk (I’m a paralysis by analysis person, you see).
  3. Continue tracking student opinion and insights along the way.

Final Thoughts

I kind of feel like I may have bitten off more than I can chew? This is definitely going to be a long journey, one that far outlasts the year. I need to be okay with the idea that not everything will be perfect. I also need to practice what I preach and embrace the failure as much as the success! But, despite the low key dread, I’m really excited about how my practice has already changed and how it will change in the future. 


  1. Esther you have some great ideas here! I am looking forward to hearing about how the PBL process goes for you!

    I also can echo so much of your experience in a math class, my students as well could talk about collaboration time, but had difficulty pinning down times they had problem solved in a meaningful way. I wholeheartedly agree that PBL is a great way to support students problem solving and giving them an authentic experience with mathematics.

    I’m hoping to try out PBL in the new year with a couple of my classes so I’ll be reaching out to hear about your experience!

    1. Holly, I’m so glad that we are on this boat together. I have the feeling you and I are going to pick each others brains quite a lot in the second term. I’ve already gone through the UN goals page, and am optimistic that students can do some really meaningful work next term. And yet, I’m still super nervous about how it will all pan out. I still haven’t had the time to really sit down and think about the details of implementation! My homework assignment for the winter break…

  2. Hello,
    I love that you are activtly pursiuing this and I can see the updates in twitter chats and our vidoe hangouts. You are making great work and remember, cohort21 is the begining of a journey – it doesn’t have to be a one year project. Maybe this is a 2/3 year plan to implement over time. If you do it in small steps and make those steps right, you won’t have to go back at the end and fix things that are not working properly, but rather fix things you want to change because of new learning.

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