Students Build Problem-Solving Skills and Confidence in Math Through Discourse and Collaboration
Sunnyside Unified School District (SUSD) is the second-largest district in southern Arizona. It is located in a culturally diverse community and surrounded by the tribal lands of the Tohono O’odham Nation and Pascua Yaqui Tribe.
- High poverty rate
- Decrease in math performance in middle school
- Proficiency gap between district and state on AzMERIT test in mathematics
In SUSD, 80 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, 17 percent are English language learners (ELLs), and 0.9 percent are homeless. On the statewide achievement test, the AzMERIT, there had been a persistent proficiency gap in mathematics between SUSD and the state average. Over the last four years, the gap has ranged from 16 to 21 percent in grade 6, 16 to 19 percent in the grade 7, and 21 to 24 percent in grade 8.
“In many districts, it’s common to see a dip in student performance in math from elementary to middle school, and we saw that across the board in our middle schools,” said Maggie Hackett, a grade 8 math teacher and the math and science director for SUSD. “We had been using an online curriculum, but it wasn’t serving the needs of our students. The instructional focus seemed to be more on having the technology be the teacher, and performance-wise we weren’t getting the return on investment we expected. We didn’t have the budget to purchase new curricula, so we began moving into the Open Educational Resource (OER) space.”
- IM 6–8 Math+, authored by Illustrative Mathematics (IM)
- Professional learning certified by Illustrative Mathematics
In 2016, SUSD was invited to pilot IM 6–8 Math, which is authored by IM and its founder Dr. William McCallum, one of the lead writers for the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics. Previously, SUSD had used IM’s freely available tasks to populate the district-created units for grades K–5.
During the 2016–17 school year, SUSD’s grade 6 teachers piloted IM 6–8 Math and participated in IM Certified professional learning. The curriculum’s authors, who work hand-in-hand with IM Certified Facilitators, developed the professional learning. The teachers attended two days of professional learning in the summer. Then, once a month, they attended a 90-minute face-to-face session with the facilitator to preview each upcoming unit.
In 2017–18, SUSD expanded its implementation of IM 6–8 Math to all students in grades 6–8. Using the problem-based core curriculum, teachers developed students’ mathematical thinking skills through questioning, discussion, and real-world contexts and connections.
“One of the things that most stood out for me is that the IM 6–8 Math curriculum is built around real-world, task-based problems that students can really engage with,” said Hackett. “It encourages collaborative learning, and it includes routines that have become very popular in math education, such as Notice and Wonder and Which One Doesn’t Belong. Because those routines are already embedded in the curriculum, teachers don’t have to worry about adding something else to what they’re already doing.”
According to Hackett, IM 6–8 Math is helping teachers address the focus, coherence, and rigor of the Arizona Mathematics Standards. It also provides a consistent lesson structure, making it easy for teachers to support an aligned, coherent progression within and across units and grade levels.
“IM 6–8 Math is structured so that kids can take ownership of their learning. They can grapple with problems, engage in productive struggle, and become mathematicians,” she said. “This falls in line with where we’re trying to take our instructional practices and what we want our math classes to look like. It’s a big shift to move to problem-based instruction and collaborative learning, so it’s nice to have a curriculum and professional learning that align with that.”
To support diverse learners, IM 6–8 Math includes built-in supports for ELLs, students with disabilities, advanced learners, and those below benchmark. “In our district, we have students who come to middle school with gaps in their learning and a large number of students who are ELLs, so it’s very helpful to have these supports. They help us make the content more accessible to everyone,” said Hackett.
- Increased student discourse
- Positive changes in students’ perceptions about math
- Increased student confidence in their mathematical abilities
- Positive changes in teachers’ perceptions about math
Since implementing IM 6–8 Math, SUSD has seen many positive changes in its middle school math classrooms.
Increased student discourse
“Now, the teaching approach is less ‘sage on the stage’ and more ‘guide on the side,’ and there’s much more student discourse,” said Hackett. “Almost every task provides opportunities for students to talk with each other in pairs or small groups, and then they can come back together to talk as a whole group. It’s nice to see students interact with and build off of each other, instead of only listening and talking to the teacher.”
Positive changes in students’ perceptions about math
With this collaborative, problem-based approach, students’ perceptions and attitudes about math are changing. “We’re starting to chip away at students’ hesitancy to explain their thinking,” she said. “Before, students were only asked to explain, elaborate, or justify their thinking when they answered something incorrectly. So, at first when we’d ask them to explain their thinking, they’d get that deer-in-the-headlights look. That’s fading because they now understand that when we ask them to explain something, it’s not because they’re wrong; it’s because we actually want to hear what they’re thinking.”
Increased student confidence in their mathematical abilities
“With IM 6–8 Math, students have increased their confidence in their mathematical abilities,” she added. “The tasks in the curriculum have a low floor and a high ceiling, which allows for multiple entry points. The extensive use of representation also makes the math very accessible. Before, students thought they should be able to number-crunch their way through a problem and that if we had to draw a picture, it was because they weren’t getting something. That narrative has changed. Students understand that pictures and representations are tools we can use to help us ground the mathematics and give it context so we can make sense of it—and then we can use that context to do the number-crunching.”
Positive changes in teachers’ perceptions about math
“The curriculum is also changing teachers’ perceptions of what math teaching and learning should look like,” she continued. “At first, several teachers weren’t comfortable with group work and with students collaborating and talking during class. That’s why it’s important to have conversations and provide professional learning on topics such as group work to teachers get on board.”
Teachers are noticing changes from year to year, too. “At the beginning of 2017, our seventh grade teachers said that their incoming seventh graders—who had used the 6–8 curriculum in grade 6—were more prepared. And at the beginning of 2018, teachers again saw an improvement over the previous year. So, we’re starting to see that return on investment that comes with using the IM curriculum over time,” said Hackett. “It’s a big change moving to a problem-based curriculum and collaborative learning, particularly when your teachers and students are used to a more traditional approach, but it’s worth it.”
Thanks to its success, SUSD has adopted IM 9–12 Math and will pilot IM K–5 Math. “It will be so nice to have coherence in the content and the instructional strategies and routines from kindergarten through high school,” said Hackett.
+Version 1, from Open Up Resources