When it comes to teaching math, Hebrew Academy Grade 6 teachers Sheri Gray and Lauren Thurber are way ahead of the curve.
The two Montreal day school teachers have developed a self-paced math program that has been a huge hit with their students – so much so that the teachers were invited to share their creation at the recent Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers’ annual convention.
At a time when Hebrew Academy’s elementary school is increasingly applying differentiated instruction (DI), an educational framework that tailors learning to the individual needs of the student, Gray and Thurber’s program – which Gray calls “Math Quest” and Thurber calls “Super Mathio” – exemplifies this educational approach at its best, they say.
DI’s proponents recognize that in a classroom with dozens of students, effective instruction cannot be one-size-fits-all.
DI also aims to make learning more of an active, collaborative experience. Rather than observe a teacher at the front of the class, students work and learn from one another, at times in “communities” based on ability, interest or learning preferences, with the teacher serving as the facilitator.
In 2015, Gray piloted the self-paced math program with her Grade 6 class and continued to develop it with Thurber over the past couple of years. As the pair explained, they saw the need for “a pedagogical shift that engages all students, offers them choice, allows for differentiation in the classroom, increases access to small-group learning opportunities, blends technology and develops 21st-century skills.”
Gray and Thurber structure the curricula in their respective classes. Students work through the concepts at their own pace, reflect on their understanding and then plan their next steps. The teachers serve as “supporters” – guiding everyone while focusing on students who may require more assistance and attention.
“We use the acronym WARP with the students,” said Gray. “Work Independently, Assess your learning, Record your score and Plan your next step.”
Each unit in the curriculum explores multiple concepts over eight lessons. For the first step – instruction – students might watch a mini tutorial online, read a lesson in their class textbook or request a one-on-one or small group lesson with the teacher. At times, the teachers might also give a brief class lesson.
“The students love to watch the videos because as they’re watching, they can pause and watch them again if they need to,” said Thurber. “They can’t do that with a teacher. Kids can also do an example along with the video.”
The students then practise what they’ve learned (Step 2) by completing exercises or activities, including workbook lessons and online games. They then self-correct their answers with those posted online and check in with the teacher to demonstrate that they’ve mastered the concept (Step 3).
Once they are given the all clear, students think about what they’ve learned (Step 4) by recording themselves on Flipgrid, a video-discussion platform that’s viewable by their classmates and teachers.
As Gray explained, “For their reflections, we prompt students with questions. For example, when learning fractions, students might be asked to give a real-world example of a fraction, or explain how you might compare two fractions.
“This step allows students to have a space for reflection and to articulate what they have learned. Students are also asked to consider what steps they will take to do well on the unit test.”
Throughout the process, students can check to see if they’re keeping up with their peers via a shared sheet on Google Classroom. A bulletin board that resembles a game board in each class also highlights students’ progress in a fun, non-competitive manner.
Once students feel prepared to take the test and have demonstrated their mastery of the skills to their teachers, they proceed to the final step: assessment.
“Students schedule their own test dates,” said Thurber. “Those that have completed their assessment can move on to enrichment activities that may include designing a poster that explains a concept, designing a math game for the class or researching a topic from a math perspective – like explaining climate change with charts and tables.”
The teachers note that the program also prepares sixth graders for high school, where they will be expected to work more independently.
“I like doing self-paced math because if you’re quicker, you can go more quickly and if you’re slower, you can work more slowly,” said Ayelet Scheier, a student in Gray’s class.
Ayelet often takes the unit test before many of her classmates and has completed a few enrichment activities since the beginning of the year. Currently, she is developing an interactive online game centred on division and fractions,. She will soon present it to her class.
“Doing enrichment activities is a way to present your own ideas to others, even if you’re not a teacher,” said Ayelet.
“Students take ownership for their own learning,” said Gray. “Through this, they gain confidence and are eager to help others.”
Thurber agrees, saying that, “The kids help each other in my class. I always say there are 18 teachers, not one. We see the students feeling empowered because self-pacing allows them to customize their learning experience.”