Student-driven learning in the math classroom


I get to work with teachers of all grade level and all content areas. That’s one of the best aspects of my job. I normally don’t like to make generalizations, but just this once I’m going to. In my experiences, math teachers have usually been the most vocal with me as to why technology integration and/or a student-driven learning environment don’t work in math. (Now, in their defense, I’ve heard that argument from just about every grade level and content area at some point along the line.) I take extra delight, because of that, when I get to work with math teachers who completely change their minds in that regard in a fairly short amount of time.

Think back to how you learned math. Chances are high that your math teachers lectured, demonstrating how to work through problems from the front of the room, and then provided you with problems to work out yourself using this information.  You probably memorized rules and formulas, postulates and theorems, and then prayed on test day that your memory wouldn’t fail you. You probably wondered at some point, “When am I ever going to use this?” Or, “How does this apply to my life?” If you were lucky like I am and that stuff just makes sense, then math was a decent experience. If you were like my husband who was the one asking those questions above and looking for any and all extra credit to pass each math class, then you probably commiserate with students still learning like that today. While math was fairly easy for me, I’m horrible at trying to teach higher math concepts (something I have to do often with my teenage daughter). I know how to solve the problem but can’t explain it to her in a way that makes sense. I don’t know the why behind the processes.

I recently wrote about a fantastic experience I had working with Mrs. E. She was a very traditional math teacher up until the fall of 2016. You can read more about her transformation here. The best part is that she isn’t an anomaly. I got to work with three other math teachers in the same district and watch their growth throughout a five-month period, as well.


Mrs. W’s tasked her Algebra 1 class with developing presentations to show their knowledge of Quadratic Equations in standard, vertex, or intercept form and describe the effects of the graph if any given variable is changed. The students chose their small groups and conducted research based on which form was assigned by Mrs. W. They had guiding questions for their research, but then had to construct three to five questions for their peers to answer following their presentations. The students were able to choose which platform they use to share the information and I saw Prezi, PowToons, and PowerPoint all being used. Following the presentations, students evaluated and gave constructive feedback to their peers about the content and presentation.


Ms. H teaches an inclusion class for Algebra 1. She works hard to differentiate her lessons to meet the needs of each unique learner. This past visit to her classroom, I saw the most student-directed learning yet in her class. She created a choice board for her students to choose from to learn the vocabulary for their new unit on parts of a quadratic. In introducing vocabulary in this manner, the students had to research and define each vocabulary word instead of just listening to the teacher or reading the definitions. They were in charge of their own learning, and the synthesization of that information in order to complete their chosen project showing their new knowledge. Check out her board for more ideas on how she used technology integration to increase their learning choices.


Mr. M teaches freshmen in an early college academy at Crowley. He also shared a thank you with me last week for pushing him to be more student-directed in his instruction. One important item to note is that I noticed Mr. M’s outstanding classroom management and excellent rapport with his students from the beginning of our time working together in the fall. These strong foundations allow for an easier transition into student-driven learning. It’s also fun to note that all of these teachers were teaching quadratic equations to their Algebra 1 students, making it easy to see much variation in the same topic area.

The day before my visit, students were given a blank graphic organizer over quadratic functions. They used technology to explore the properties of quadratic functions to fill in the graphic organizer.  Mr. M had also shared a video via EdPuzzle with his class to provide more information. After completing the graphic organizer, they worked with partners to present the material through whatever media they wish to use. They created their own quadratic equations then created a presentation that showed a graph representation of the equation. They had to determine the vertex, width, domain, range, the direction of opening, and the axis of symmetry.
It’s difficult to give up control in a math class. These teachers have made great strides toward releasing some of that control over to their students. If you are determined to transform your classroom into a student-driven learning environment, keep increasing their opportunities to make choices and find their own learning while giving them the vision of how math relates to their own lives. It works. And the students will thank you for it.