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Middle School Math: Practical Methods for Foundational Learning

Interactive technology can address the unique challenges of teaching and learning math at the middle school level

In middle school, students are being readied for higher level math concepts. Educators must engage learners to achieve deeper understanding, as well as prepare students for high stakes assessments. This web seminar, originally presented on April 16, 2014, featured an education expert and sixth grade teacher who discussed using technology in practical ways to achieve ideal middle school math instruction.

Nigel Nisbet 
Director of Content Creation
MIND Research Institute

We are very excited about bringing the success that we’ve had at the elementary level up into middle school, and providing a platform for kids to work on on-grade material and intervention material. Our program actually performs a diagnostic assessment at the middle school level, sees where the kids are, gives them intervention material and then ramps them into the on-grade level. The Common Core is based on the idea that math is not just concepts, it’s not just procedural fluencies and it’s not just applications. It’s a mixture of all three. We thoroughly share this view. So we’ve looked at how to build conceptual understanding. There are a lot of very challenging questions that kids are being asked. But when it says that in Grade 6 ratios and proportional relationships are critical to focus on, it doesn’t mean that we need to just focus on tons of word application problems. We first have to build kids’ ability to reason proportionally, connect that reasoning to all of the tools that they need, and then they will be in a position to solve interesting application problems and word problems.

That is the crux of how ST Math, MIND Research Institute’s game software, is designed. A large chunk of our program is built to give students meaningful, difficult reasoning challenges that are embedded with the underlying concepts behind the application problems they see in the Common Core. ST Math features a penguin named JiJi. We essentially reduced all mathematics to tasks in which the students need figure out how to get JiJi across the screen. There are no instructions or questions. The games are entirely visual problem-solving. They include counting, proportional reasoning, arithmetic of rational numbers, fractional math, graphing relationships and so on, and eventually building language into the tasks. Anytime students make a decision or choose something, they get to see the consequences of their actions. If something is wrong, they get immediate feedback about why, and then they get to see how and why things really work. Common Core mathematics is not a disconnected list of topics or tricks. It’s a coherent body of knowledge made up of these interconnected concepts. The rules for multiplying and manipulating integers are no longer just facts to be memorized. ST Math gets to the heart of this. The kids can build their understanding deeply as to how math is going to work, and that is pretty powerful.

Shannon Duncan 
Sixth Grade Teacher
McPherson Magnet School
Orange (Calif.) USD

One thing that is immensely powerful is that the ST Math program emphasizes cognitive enlightenment, as opposed to the drill-and-kill that you get with a lot of the old math programs. My kids are so engaged with it, and I see learning processes going on constantly. What’s missing in a lot of other products is the piece that draws the kids in. They need something to make them feel they have some sort of buy-in. With ST Math, JiJi gives them something to connect to. My kids call him “the mighty penguin,” and they root for this little penguin to get through all of their screens, not realizing that this entire process has such a huge range of importance to their educational development. If you put a piece of paper in front of them, it’s flat, has no dimension, has no challenge to it—you are not going to get that same level of enlightenment. You can’t have a child be successful if they are sitting there bored. My favorite part, however, is how it creates a student driven desire to succeed. I don’t have to step in and say, “Now, Jackson, you have to be accountable for what you are doing with your time,” because Jackson is already so busy being engaged with ST Math. As an educator, that’s what I want. I would rather have my students be so engaged and so into what they are doing as an independent learner and thinker that we actually have to pull them out of that mindset. That means it’s really hitting home.

The other fascinating to me is that when they are guiding themselves through these problems, they are the ones who are creating the cognitive understanding. The program doesn’t teach them tricks to solve equations, it teaches them concepts. I also cannot stress enough what this program has done for my kids in terms of academic discussions. I’m a huge believer that when your students do something academically, they need to be able to show you how they are doing it, but they also need to explain it in an academic way: Why are they able to do what they are doing? How did they solve this? What problem-solving skills did they use? What logic did they use? And I want it done in an academic language to support the Common Core. ST Math has been a great tool for facilitating that. What I am seeing happen is a correction of gaps. I’m seeing students’ numerical sense increase. I’m seeing their ability to problem-solve and strategize increase. I’m seeing the ability to comprehend how numbers interact with one another in different formats. Even if it’s the same numbers and you put them in different scenarios, my students are now able to see: How do those interact differently? What is it about those numbers, and the way that they’re laid out in different formats, that makes them still have a connection? This is the first time I’ve ever seen a program accomplish this.

More importantly, I’m seeing this result with my special education students, my moderate mainstream students and my advanced math students. They’ve all had gaps in some way or another, and every one of them is finding success now. One of the most important outcomes is that this is all building a confidence in math that many of my students have never had before. That is such a powerful outcome; we can’t overlook how impactful that is. Furthermore, I am seeing the effects across the curriculum, beyond just the math component. That doesn’t happen in a traditional teaching method. In English, my kids are using what they are learning in ST Math to help them structurally support a sentence. “Oh, you have to put it in the right order, otherwise it’s not going to work.” That’s what they are getting from these concepts, plus the correctional gaps, plus mathematical confidence. All of these things go back into every area of your curriculum. It affects everything.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to: www.districtadministration.com/ws041614