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How Teachers Mix Online Math with Classroom Instruction

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As schools start experimenting with educational software -- or blended learning -- teachers are trying to find ways of using tech to enhance learning in different subjects. When it comes to math, specifically, the tactics vary widely -- from using software for remediation, to practicing drills and exercises to move students ahead at their own pace, to completely re-conceptualizing the traditional classroom model.

The one underlying common thread? Using online math has begun to change teachers' perspectives. Here's how blended learning in math is taking shape in three California schools.


Two Summit charter schools in San Jose, Calif. provide examples of blended learning that completely deconstruct the traditional classroom model. Just opened last year, Rainier and Tahoma have taken advantage of their one-to-one computer program to experiment with Khan Academy videos for math instruction. When the program first began, teachers introduced a concept, then had students do practice exercises using Khan Academy, which also provided assessment results for the teacher.


“I liked that model because it freed me up to do high-quality targeted instruction,” said Zack Miller a math teacher.

But Miller found this model unsatisfying in some ways. The ninth-grade class was working at more or less the same pace, with the only differentiation being the varying levels. “My biggest struggle last year was I had too many different skill levels in there and I had to kind of teach to one pace,” Miller said. “I kept thinking, 'If I could only break down the walls.'”

This year, that’s exactly what Summit Rainier and Tahoma did. They’ve built one large math room for 200 kids, with smaller rooms branching off the main room that are set aside for assessments, projects and individual tutoring. Teachers work in teams of seven, alternating between teaching mini-lessons at the “tutoring bar,” roaming around the room offering help and supervising more in-depth projects designed for applying concepts students have learned.

It sounds chaotic, but Miller prefers it. Students at Rainier and Tahoma have individualized lesson plans that are not related to their grade level. In a typical day, students come in and check the schedule for the goal they should be working on that day. Then, if the mini-lesson on that skill is scheduled, they head over to the tutoring bar; if not, they open up a “playlist” of online resources for that concept and familiarize themselves with the topic using online tools before heading to the seminar later in the period. The students rotate between computer practice, seminars and individualized instruction for a two-hour math period.

Once a student has mastered a concept, she takes a computerized assessment that gauges her level of competency. But that computer score is not what defines that student's learning, according to Miller.

“Too often we have these machine readable assessments and then students think that math is picking the right multiple choice question,” Miller said. Once students have mastered a set of skills, they complete projects to demonstrate its real-world applications. For example, to show mastery of quadratics, Miller’s students designed a water fountain with a perfect water arc for people of various heights.

Rainier and Tahoma have a project coordinator in the math classroom who keeps an eye on how all the parts work together. She’s in charge of identifying the problem points and working to come up with solutions.


Another school in Oakland, Calif., Crocker Highlands Elementary, uses math software in a different way. Students have lab time once a week when they work on the ALEKS math software. Ashley Foster teaches fourth grade and is attempting to find ways to integrate the online learning into her direct instruction in class. While there have always been differences in comprehension in the classroom, now some of her students are actually doing fifth-grade math on the computer program while they're in fourth grade. She still teaches the fourth-grade math in class, but she’s left asking herself questions like, “How do I challenge this student” and “Does the student feel alone when they are doing this?” because they've zoomed ahead to the next levels on the math software.

Foster’s solution has been to send kids who have mastered a concept into the hall to do “challenge time” -- in-depth word problems that inspire critical thinking. But those more difficult concepts soon became the goal for other kids in class. Soon “challenge time” became a reward for understanding the material and all the kids wanted to work on word problems. Foster found a way to allow kids to move at different paces through the material -- and inspired everyone in class to move ahead.


Another Bay Area school uses math software for a completely different reason. At Summit Everest in Redwood City blended learning is used to close the gap between different levels of learners. The school's population reflects its district, which covers the whole economic spectrum: 40% free and reduced lunch and a mixed-race population.

Kyle Moyer teaches AP Calculus to seniors, but some of his students aren’t ready for the course. The school’s mission is to graduate high school students who are both college ready and equipped to succeed in college once they get there. But many come into his math class at a huge skill deficit, so he uses the software to identify the holes and gaps and help fill them.

But teaching some kids basic math while others learn advanced calculus in the same room is a tough juggling act. Adjusting to the tech tools for grading and data analysis hasn’t been easy either. Moyer says he’ll start class by discussing a broad concept that all learners can understand, then he’ll break the class into groups with some kids working to catch up on the computer and others learning calculus. He then moves around and provides individual help.

Moyer says the technology has its place and it has certainly helped many struggling students catch up. But it has limitations. “A computer as of yet cannot help a student develop that deep mathematical reasoning and connecting concepts in various areas,” Moyer said.


That’s his job, but he hopes that the software will give struggling learners a more robust mathematical “arsenal.”

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