Education Opinion

Video Games, Menus, and “What do you want to do?": Student Choice in Math

By Justin Minkel — November 12, 2013 5 min read
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My last two posts talked about student choice in reading and writing. Today’s piece focuses on student choice in math.

Video games provide what school doesn’t---constant challenge. In a video game, you rarely have to waste your time with “busy work” that’s too easy. You get right to the “challenge” level: not so easy it’s boring, not so hard it’s frustrating.

Spend five minutes watching a child play a video game, and you’ll see proof that kids crave challenge. Given the choice between an easy level they can pass without much effort, or a harder level they have a slim chance of passing if they bring all their attention and skill to bear, most children will choose the harder level.

I see this play out every day in math with my 2nd and 3rd graders.

Math Menus

Marilyn Burns developed the concept of a Math Menu, described in a book that saved me when I began teaching and math was my weakest subject: About Teaching Mathematics.

The idea is simple. At the end of a two-week unit on a concept such as fractions or probability, you set up four or five centers with materials from math games and lessons the kids experienced at some point during the unit. For a fractions unit, I set up these four centers, all drawn from Marilyn Burns:

1. Cover Up, a game that reinforces notation for adding fractions, with fraction strips the kids created themselves and a number cube marked with the fractions ½, ¼, and 1/8.

2. Uncover, another game using the fraction strips that focuses on equivalent fractions.

3. Fractions as parts of a set, with a tub of two-sided yellow/red counters.

4. Wipeout, a game to teach mixed numbers, with pattern blocks and a cube marked with the fractions ½, 1/3, and 1/6.

Instead of assigning students to centers, I pair them up with clipboards and pencils for notation, then the pairs fan out across the classroom to choose their centers. There’s no set rotation or time limit, though if a center is full, the kids have to choose another until a spot opens up.

The level of engagement is remarkable. During the hour or so the kids have to interact with the Math Menu, some pairs spend the entire time at one or two centers, while others visit all four. The classroom is filled with the right kind of noise---a dozen mathematical conversations, punctuated by groans or squeals of laughter, taking place all around the room.

“No, Felipe---you can’t trade ½ for 3/8! It’s equivalent to 4/8, silly.”

“3/4 of 12 is 9---see, you make four equal groups, and each group has three little circles in it.”

“You shouldn’t have exchanged those 4/8 for ½--the probability of rolling ½ on these cubes is only 1 in 6. (Diabolical laughter.) I’m going to win!”

Benefits to Our Students

In my first post in this series on choice, I referenced a study that identified four critical elements in successful classrooms. Three of those elements are built into Math Menus: access to materials like math manipulatives, time spent in small groups rather than whole-class lessons, and student choice.

Providing students with choices has a clear link to motivation and engagement. What’s less apparent is that choice can build in differentiation by academic readiness, too. When my 2nd graders did an addition Math Menu, a student named Derek spent the entire time at the same center, playing a game called “Snap-It” that lets kids experience various ways to build and write a number.

Derek had a learning disability that created a big gap between his academic skills and his intelligence. He was fascinated by ancient Egypt and Greek mythology, but all the books on his level were about crayons, balloons, and losing your first tooth. As a result, much of his day was filled with frustration.

Derek stood at the Snap-It Center for a full 45 minutes, first building a rod of blocks, then snapping it and writing down the equation, with a jack o’lantern grin on his face. When I walked by his center, he beamed at me and said, “I just want to keep doing this and doing this forever!”

Who Knows What Students Need?

As teachers, we spend a tremendous amount of time trying to gauge our students’ needs. We pore over data from classroom assessments, state tests, and computerized assessments, trying to figure out what our whole class needs, what targeted groups of students need, and what individual kids need.

Sometimes we forget to mine a primary source: our students’ self-knowledge, and their capacity to make choices based on that knowledge.

When my students are free to choose books they’re excited about during Independent Reading, their selections are usually “just right” in terms of difficulty, too. When we do a Math Menu every couple of weeks, the pairs gravitate toward centers that give them a tactile experience they need to fully understand the central concept for that unit. When I have the kids set goals during Writer’s Workshop conferences, they tend to have a firm grasp of their needs as a writer, and they usually follow through on the goals they set.

Our students know what they care about. They know what they like to do. They often know what they need to work on, too. Even the youngest students can have keen insights into their own needs.

We just need to do the same thing we ask of them: pay attention. Watch what they do, listen to what they say. Provide them with choices, then pay careful attention to what they choose.

A Simple Question

When we’re hanging out with friends, picking up our children from school, or pondering a date night, we often ask, “What do you want to do?” Kids in school almost never hear that question. They hear plenty about what it’s time to do, what they should do, and what they have to do, but they rarely have the luxury of a choice.

Building more choices into our school day has a tremendous effect on motivation. It also has a positive impact on academic growth. It helps kids learn to think through their options, commit to their choice, and reflect later on the decision they made. It gives us a window into our students’ interests, abilities, and needs, too.

Next time you toggle through the movie options on Netflix, place your 27-syllable Starbucks order on your way home from school, or weigh the benefits of Ben & Jerry’s Cheesecake Brownie vs. New York Super Fudge Chunk, think back for a minute on the day your students just spent in your class.

How many choices did they get to make? How many choices will you build into their day tomorrow?

The opinions expressed in Teaching for Triumph: Reflections of a 21st-Century ELL Teacher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.