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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

‘Less Is More’ in Math Distance Learning

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 08, 2020 14 min read
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question is:

What does math instruction look like in the age of the coronavirus?

The first and second posts in this series featured commentaries by New York City high school math teachers Bobson Wong and Larisa Bukalov. They are the authors of The Math Teacher’s Toolbox (Jossey-Bass, 2020) and recipients of the Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship.

Today, Cindy Garcia, Shannon Jones, Elissa Scillieri, Ed.D., and Beth Brady share their experiences.

Four key points

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 14 years and is currently a district instructional specialist for PK-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics. She is active onTwitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

One of the main impacts of coronavirus on teachers and students is the loss of instructional time. Regardless of the method of instruction, it seems very likely that students will not participate in a full day of instruction for a while. Below I suggest four areas that teachers can reflect upon as they plan for and facilitate instruction in order to maximize student learning.

  1. Focused Learning Targets & Instruction

As teachers plan for instruction, they must unpack their mathematics standards and determine what are the most important learning targets that students need to learn. What mathematics understanding do students need the most for upcoming instruction in their current grade level and the next grade level? When planning for instruction, teachers need to plan lessons that are precise, focused, and succinct. One individual lesson might need to be chunked into multiple days, in order to provide students with sufficient processing and internalization time. We have to keep in mind the idea that less is more.

  1. Increase Connections to Home/Real Life

In order to make mathematics meaningful to students, teachers need to make mathematics visible to students and make connections. It is important that students realize that mathematics learning continues beyond instructional time with their teacher. Manipulatives (physical or virtual), realia, and other visuals are imperative in guiding students to make sense of mathematics concepts. Teachers can support student learning by prompting them to use real-life items from home during math instruction. For example, after working on partitioning objects into halves, fourths, and eighths, students can continue to explore the concept by partitioning food items. Another idea is for students to find examples of different types of angles in their living room.

  1. Provide Multiple Opportunities for Interaction

This pandemic has led to long periods of social distancing, but students still need interaction help in their productive struggle and to internalize what is being taught. Students need interaction with their teacher and with their peers. Applications such as Flipgrid (which works great on phones & other devices) can be a great tool for students to record themselves sharing their mathematical thinking, see & hear their peers’ ideas, reply to their peers’ recordings, and receive feedback from their teacher. Other tools such as Kahoot and Quizlet allow for gamification that will make instruction fun and engaging for students. Other tools such as EdPuzzle, make viewing videos interactive because students are prompted to focus on specific portions of the videos and answer guiding questions throughout the video.

  1. Specific & Targeted Feedback

Now more than ever, time is limited and should not be focused on students obtaining the correct answer. Teacher time needs to be focused on figuring out the level of students’ understanding in order to make upcoming lessons more targeted. Teacher feedback needs to be specific and provide students with enough information that they know what they should continue doing. Focused feedback can also help students feel confident about their mathematics abilities, and that confidence will encourage their engagement during instructional time.

“Find the bright spots”

Shannon Jones is a 14-year educator working in Wheaton, Md. She is a “focus” teacher and works with students in 3rd-5th grades. She can be reached at shannon.l.jones@mcpsmd.net or @MsJonesLuvsMath:

Recently I have been reading, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath. The authors refer to the two sides of our brains, the logical side and the emotional side. We have to convince students on a cognitive level that coming to our online class is important to their educational future but we also have to appeal to their emotional side and convince them that school online can still be engaging and enjoyable. So in our current situation, a better question might be, how do you get students to your online class and how do you keep them coming back?

“Find the bright spots": To tackle students’ confusion around how to use all of these new online tools and platforms, ask yourself, who are my bright stars? Who are the students that are submitting their work and coming to all of your online classes? When other students ask questions and show confusion during your live lessons, ask those bright stars to do the explaining and the screen sharing.

“Find the feeling": If students don’t feel anything when they miss your class, why would they keep logging on? Kahoot has many wonderful tutorials and articles about how to use their tools for online learning. After my online class played Kahoot, I posted the top three scorers on our Class Dojo page. My hope is that students who didn’t come to class might see the post and be excited to join next week. Also, if you were already in the habit of doing 3 Act Tasks with your class, try doing one during a live class. Every single one of my students had their hand raised during the notice and wonder segment.

“Tweak the environment": The easier it is for students to find the work you are posting, the less resistance you will have. The Heath brothers state that “clarity resolves resistance.” Encourage students to still use their math manipulatives by providing links to online manipulatives. Glencoe has a wonderful online virtual manipulative platform, and my students have been using the “cubes” website from Illuminations. Allow choice, use the poll feature on Kahoot or Zoom to learn how your students would like to access the learning.

Continue with the positive reinforcement: Class Dojo has a wonderful feature called “portfolios.” It allows you to post student work privately to families in a visual way. Recognizing hard work at this time is especially important. Many students are navigating these online platforms alone while their families are at work.

Keep up the human contact: When you call home, ask to speak to your student. This allows you to check in with them and ask how they are doing. If students know you care about them, they are more likely to make an effort to be online the next time you have a class. Another way for students to connect is through the “breakout” room feature on Zoom. This allows students to work in small groups again, and conversation increases.

Be predictable with scheduling your lessons and assignments but vary your delivery and show your heart. Keep a growth mindset with yourself and your students; this will get better.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. New York: Broadway Books.

“Less is more”

Elissa Scillieri, Ed.D., has enjoyed her previous roles of elementary teacher, math instructional coach, and math supervisor. This year she has taken on an invigorating new challenge as an elementary school principal in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter: @EScillieri:

As if mathematics weren’t complicated enough, add a pandemic to the mix, and math instruction has become infinitely more challenging. If you scroll through social media, it is evident that many parents already have negative opinions about current math instruction, and these same people are now the substitute teachers for our students. Teachers have many considerations as they plan math lessons for distance learning, but here are three guidelines that encompass many of them..

Less is more

Few students ever wanted to do 50 of the same type of problem from their math book. Now, with distracting home environments, inconsistent access to technology, and fewer opportunities for individualized help, it is even more important to cut back on our expectations. Teachers can begin by paring down the quantity of topics that they expect to teach. In order for students to digest any new topics, they will need it presented in small chunks with plenty of time to check in for understanding. Rather than sharing a slideshow with 20 examples of a strategy or problem, choose the best three examples and give students an opportunity to draw their own conclusions or ask questions. Students could then practice their skills on about five problems. Allowing students to work with smaller groups of topics will account for the varying home situations and allow the teacher to intervene, however possible, before a student feels very lost or overwhelmed.

Use technology wisely

Each day, educators’ inboxes overflow with offers from companies, suggesting free digital services to get schools through distance learning. Districts and teachers should be selective in the digital programs and tools that they assign to students. Consider staying away from programs or websites that only provide rote problems; instead, look for opportunities that are valuable and offer interaction and engaging content. Students might search for a topic and end up relying on videos they find that robotically teach math strategies. Teachers, instead, could direct students to virtual manipulatives that they can maneuver themselves or to websites with graphing tools and activities, such as Desmos.

Show parents and students the relevance of math in the real world

While there may be many reasons why distance learning can be frustrating and overwhelming, it also presents us with opportunities to make connections between math and the world around us. Students have been able to see, through all of the charts and graphs in every news cycle, that math truly is relevant to our lives. High schoolers, especially, can study exponential growth to explore their own questions about the disease’s spread. Parents can reinforce concepts like time and money with younger students and notice more opportunities to point out math, such as in cooking. The more families are ready to move away from pencil-and-paper math, the more progress can be made when we return to our school buildings.

Of course, the ideal situation would be if math teaching and learning were occuring in a building, with in-person social interactions. However, as we continue to adapt to distance learning, educators discover new ways to make magic happen from anywhere.

“It’s tricky and it’s complicated”

Beth Brady is a passionate educator who loves to bring math alive. She works in Northampton, Mass., as a Title I math interventionist and is the district’s Math Recovery Champion. She was NCTM’s 2016-18 Program of Mathematics Study & Active Professionalism Grant recipient and earned her second master’s degree in mathematics teaching at Mount Holyoke College in July 2018. She has been teaching in Northampton since 1992:

It’s tricky and it’s complicated. How can we teach math to children when we can’t be there to support their reasoning? Most caregivers aren’t teachers, and the way many of us learned math was with rote learning of procedures and memorizing facts. How do you develop a partnership between home and school when there is a lot of math phobia out there, often admittedly so?

Many people are openly afraid of math, with caregivers often complaining about “this new math.” The math hasn’t changed, but how we teach it has. They continually wonder why we don’t teach math the way they learned it.

It’s partly because there is a lot more research about the brain, how we learn, and mathematical progressions of development, and we need to adjust our teaching practices to compensate for this knowledge. It’s also in part because we teach math in tandem with reasoning skills.

Math must make sense. Reading includes the need for comprehension, and math requires the same. In order to learn more math, we need to be able to build on what we already know. This is where the “new math” comes in: Teachers are constantly asking children to explain their thinking so that others can understand.

Magic happens when the classroom floor is opened to a rich discussion about mathematical ideas led by student voices making claims, conjectures, or simply showing how they arrived at their answer. Students find comfort in knowing that peers have similar thinking or they dig deeper or the learning sticks when someone has an idea different from their own.

Children build new understandings partly by justifying their thinking, often self-correcting when they explain their thinking with a peer. In these unprecedented times, it’s the caregiver who takes the place of the peer, which is one reason why teaching math is so tricky. Teachers can’t be there in the moment to ask questions, to guide, prompt, or wonder together. It is the caregivers’ opportunity to get to know their children’s math minds, something that teachers are craving for right now: student voice.

Prior to the Age of the Coronavirus, I could not talk with my 3rd grade daughter about math, as it would often end in an argument or her shutting down. I eventually realized that I was trying to tell her how to do it or what to think about. As soon as I stopped doing that and I started asking her what she was thinking, she was able to talk to me more about math. She has her own mind and thinks about math in her own way. She makes sense of it based on her own experiences. We connect in a new way now, sometimes adding math to our discussions as we notice, because math is everywhere.

Teaching during the Age of the Coronavirus, for me, means making videos and posting them to YouTube because it’s a platform with which most students are familiar. I am very concerned about equity issues, knowing that not everyone has access to technology nor synchronous learning, which itself is troublesome to navigate and nothing like face-to-face learning.

So I make math videos with the student and the caregiver in mind. I hope that if caregivers watch and listen to the short video of my daughter and me engaged in math, they’ll get a sense of how they can talk to their child about math and what kinds of questions to ask. I don’t tell her how to do it, I present the math ideas, and she tells me her thinking. She shows me what she knows, and we talk about that.

I’m not perfect and I’m learning so much about many aspects of teaching and learning in these crazy surreal times. Math instruction in the Age of the Coronavirus isn’t about teaching. It’s about opening up the pathway of talk and wonder when exploring mathematical ideas in the world around us, which caregivers can do as they take on the additional roles of classroom peer and teacher to support their child’s reasoning skills in mathematics.

Thanks to Cindy, Shannon, Elissa, and Beth for their contributions!

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