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Using digital resources to support math instruction

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This post is sponsored by Discovery Education.

Math education is evolving. Today’s instructional models call for new ways of thinking, allowing students to engage with problems and wrestle their way through them until they find solutions. Digital resources can facilitate this process, says William McDonald, vice president of Techbook Curriculum at Discovery. In this Q&A, McDonald discusses how digital resources can support and improve the learning experience.

SmartBrief: How do you think the instructional pedagogy for teaching mathematics needs to change for the 21st century learner?

William McDonald: A major shift that is taking place in instruction is the expectation that students explain their mathematics understanding and demonstrate mathematics skills in multiple contexts. This is common across the new standards for mathematics as well as for English language arts, and science. It’s no longer sufficient to simply use an algorithm to provide the answer to a math problem. Students need to explain and demonstrate how they arrived at the answer. This requires a shift in instruction from showing students a process and then having them practice it with fifty problems to challenging them with an engaging problem and allowing them to struggle. At first, this is counterintuitive to teachers, who are used to showing students the standard algorithm. And, at first, the students struggle because they’ve always had someone simply show them how to do it. But in a “no-penalties” environment where students can really wrestle with a problem and where they are supported by a little guidance, teachers will be pleasantly surprised by how well students can think and how much more they understand and retain from the experience.

SB: How can digital resources meet the needs of today’s students who face increasingly more rigorous math standards?

WM: First, digital resources have the power to deliver engaging problems that matter to students through video and interactives that set up problem scenarios. Imagine being challenged to calculate sound decibel levels at a rock concert, or the numerical outcome of the introduction of an invasive species.

Second, digital resources contain powerful tools and interactives that can set up problems and empower students to “mess around” to find solutions. Students can lay a geometric figure over a real world image or adjust an equation to determine how the outcome data changes on a graph.

Finally, digital resources allow teachers to capture and monitor student responses during instruction. Teachers don’t have to wait until the assessment to find out how students are progressing. Teachers can monitor the class as students enter solutions to problems during a work session and even anonymously project individual ideas and solutions for class discussion.

SB: How should teachers use formative assessments to inform instruction and meet the needs of diverse learners?

WM: There is an important distinction between assessment for learning and assessment of learning. We still tend to consider assessment as being something we do at the end. Even formative assessments most often come at stop points in instruction.

But what if we could monitor students as they are working through problems and jump in to guide them before they go too far down the path? Or have the computer give them feedback or adjust the content as they try different approaches to solving a problem? That’s assessment for learning, assessment that helps the students learn. It also allows the teacher to identify issues and narrow the achievement gap before it widens.

At the same time, the data collected by digital resources enables teachers to monitor where students are and to group for instruction as necessary. That’s assessment of learning and the new variety of technology-enhanced item types is giving us a much deeper, richer understanding of where student misconceptions lie. Teachers who learn how to utilize assessment for learning and to read the more detailed assessment of learning data can better understand where students are stumbling and provide appropriate supports.