What Adds Up to Make a Great Math Classroom?

December 22, 2015

I’m a Knowledge Engineer at Reasoning Mind. In short, that means I study successful mathematics classrooms and figure out how to recreate their curriculum materials and instructional practices in American classrooms. I spend a lot of time talking with expert teachers over Skype: poring over lesson plans, debating the finer points of exercises, discussing the best way to explain a complicated definition to a struggling student.

Recently, though, I got a much better perspective on how these classrooms work – because I visited them. Yulia Konovalova (a Lead Methodologist at Reasoning Mind) and Andrey Romashov (VP of Curriculum Development) arranged two visits at a couple of our Moscow teachers’ schools.

It had been a while since I’d attended an elementary school, but I learned just as much this time as the last time I’d taken a math class. This time, however, I was learning less about column multiplication, and more about what makes a successful math classroom.

The first thing that struck me was the level of organization in the classroom. In the hallways between classes, students were loud, lively, and completely disorganized (in trying to describe the atmosphere, the word “riot” comes to mind). But as soon as classes began, students listened carefully to the teacher, stayed on-task, and focused on the math. When it came time to move between activities, flashcards were replaced with notebooks so quickly and with such little disruption that I could have blinked and missed it.

I was pleasantly surprised by the students’ enthusiasm for math. All were eager to answer questions; the most eager could barely stay in their seats as they tried to raise their hands as high as possible (making little “Mmm! Mmmmm!” sounds to try to get the teachers’ attention). I suspect an important component to creating this enthusiasm was the classroom environment where it was okay to make mistakes. Once, a teacher called a student to the board to work on a problem she knew he would struggle with. He didn’t seem embarrassed to make mistakes in front of the class, and when he finally got to the right answer, the teacher and class gave him a brief round of applause.

Intellectual Dialogue
On some occasions, the teacher would ask one student to correct another. In calm, straightforward form, a young girl would say, “Katya, I’m going to argue with you. I think…” This may sound blunt (or even rude), but in the classroom context it was clear the student was being polite and respectful, but also matter-of-fact. I was impressed by the 3rd graders’ ability to have this kind of constructive intellectual dialogue – one based on working towards a correct answer, without fear of publicly making mistakes along the way.

Technology (in Moderation)
The use of technology was also interesting – and, I believe, extremely effective. Each classroom had a screen at the front where the teacher could display exercises for the students (they could do them independently, or in pairs). After giving the class some time to work, the teacher called students to the screen, where they wrote in the answer or dragged a number to the correct place. At first glance, one might feel that this might be an example of technology being underused; after all, anyone could do that with just a chalkboard and a few pieces of paper. But in my opinion, this is what made it so effective: there were no “bells and whistles.” The technology was simply a tool used to save time and move students through exercises more efficiently; no need for the teacher to write out every activity, and no need for them to erase them afterward. I feel that this practice shines through in Reasoning Mind’s curricula structures: as a nonprofit organization, we’ve seen the value in making sure that technology makes teaching math simpler and more effective, but doesn’t introduce flashy distractions that detract from what one is trying to teach.

The classrooms I saw had talented teachers and amazing students – students who weren’t just learning mathematics, but who were loving it. It was inspiring to see the learning environment that Reasoning Mind is working to help teachers create for their students, and it’s encouraging to see how – even with a strange guest watching them from the back of the room – this kind of environment can bring out students’ enthusiasm for mathematics.

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A special thank you to Elena Kapturova, Natalia Gerasimova, and their third-grade math classes; Elena Khabibullina and her first-grade math class; and Moscow School #814 for giving me the chance to visit and see them in action.


Jacob Brumbaugh-Smith

Jacob Brumbaugh-Smith is a Knowledge Engineer at Reasoning Mind. He studies successful mathematics classrooms and figures out how to recreate those classroom experiences in Reasoning Mind’s classrooms. He finds his job rewarding because he believes kids deserve to see how much beauty there is in math. Jacob’s favorite number is 0.

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