Middle School Math Adds the "Why" to Student Learning

  • Voices
Middle School Math Adds the "Why" to Student Learning
Erin Altshuler, Math Teacher

Department's focus on depth of curriculum leads to rich conversation and students’ taking ownership of their learning. 


The question, “What is best for our students?” drives the Middle School Math Department as we make decisions about what and how we teach. Whether supporting students in investigating a concept on their own or holding whole-class discussions, we have worked to shape the way our Ravens view themselves as capable students of mathematics.

Almost two years ago, we made the decision to focus on depth of curriculum more than breadth. This change leads to rich conversation and students’ taking ownership of their learning. We open class with broad questions and give the students leeway to discover patterns in their work.

For example, in a lesson on the circumference of a circle, the exploration began with the question: “What is longer, the distance around a tennis ball canister or the height of the canister?” When the class used a string to discover that the distance around the canister is greater than the height, it left the students asking why. Using a variety of circular objects, string, and rulers, they investigated circles in more detail, eventually finding that the distance around a circle, or the circumference, is pi times the diameter of a circle. Through this discussion, students developed a deeper understanding of the formula they use: the why and not just the what.

This type of activity is common in our math classrooms. We hope all students have confidence in math and the willingness to persevere through any difficulty they may face.

When I asked students to identify an accomplishment in math, they have responded with comments such as, “I’m proud of my understanding of math. Now I know that math topics aren’t something you learn and move on. They are like snow, they’ll keep building on.” Many students also comment on how they help others, saying, “I’m proud of getting significantly better at helping people learn how to do things in math.” Students also enjoy learning from each other:  “I am proud of how much I have grown and learned from others. I have always gained an understanding of the concept being taught. I have learned from my group and I am proud of that.”

Finally, and most importantly, students reflected on their perspective of math in these comments:

  • “I learned how to make math fun and enjoyable while learning at the same time. I feel like it’s good to have that positive connection when I think of math.”
  • “I am proud of how hard I have worked to understand math this year.”
  • “I am proud of pushing myself past my limits. Last year I just stayed at my limit of math and didn’t care. This year I pushed myself beyond my limits and started to enjoy math.”

As you can see, our students notice the difference, and we are proud the age-old question of “When will I ever use this?” rarely gets asked anymore. Our students embrace a challenge and enjoy building an understanding through collaborative work. We are proud of them! 

In these photos from November 2017, Mrs. Altshuler and her Math 7 students explore the why of their math lesson using manipulatives and journals.