Three ways to empower “Aha!” moments in the math classroom.

Too often, right from the start, students are given all of the information they need to solve predictable problems. When this instructional approach is used year after year, students come to expect and depend on this learning cycle: in class, they are given the information; for homework, they practice the information; and on tests, they regurgitate the information for a grade. In fact, when I began teaching, I modeled my teaching practices largely on what I had experienced as a student, and this same cycle thus became my primary teaching style.

My own “Aha!” moment. I had my own “Aha!” moment after many years of not understanding why my students didn’t retain the information I so painstakingly tried to teach. I finally realized that there was a big difference between teaching (something I do) and learning (something students do). My students weren’t finding their own learning and making sense of concepts for themselves. They were just trying to remember what I told them. But students don’t have to retain as much information if they truly understand it in the first place—they already know it. When I realized this and changed my practice, things began to improve in my classroom. And my students began to truly learn.

The pathway of discovery. In Wired magazine’s article, “Telling You the Answer Isn’t the Answer,” the author, Rhett Allain, an Associate Professor of Physics at Southeastern Louisiana University, discusses how student learning results from struggle and discovery: “Students are under the impression that when they are stuck and confused, they are doing something wrong.” Being appropriately challenged is terrific. We want students to be working in their Zone of Proximal Development, where they can achieve and receive the proper amount of support.

Empowerment is everything. For teachers to tap into that “sweet spot,” a shift needs to happen where the students are more active in their learning. Students should be empowered to dive into problems and develop solutions and understanding on their own. Teachers have great opportunities to encourage student thinking as they facilitate, guide, and support individualized learning with their students. As teachers question student thinking, lead discussions, and set performance expectations, students should become aware that they are not isolated on their learning journey.

Three ways to transform your classroom. The big question for teachers is: How can you incorporate active student learning into your classroom when you already have a full plate? Here are three ways to start transforming classrooms:

1. Ask open-ended, thought-provoking questions.

Instead of simply answering students’ questions, ask questions back to them. “Why” is my favorite word when working with any student. In fact, once they get to know me, they will often share their “why” explanation before I am able to ask it. Answering my questions reveals their thinking, misconceptions, and working strategies.

2. Create a safe and respectful space.

It sounds more like classroom management than a pedagogical ideal, but if your classroom is a safe and respectful haven, students are more likely to share their honest thoughts and ideas, even if they expect that they are incorrect. Even very young students can have a healthy debate while showing respect toward their peers. Once discussions like those can take place regularly, students can help each other learn and grow.

3. Make time.

What do confusion, self-assessment, frustration, “Aha!” moments, struggle, learning, understanding, interpretation, and rationalization all have in common? They take time, not just in terms of minutes per day, but also in terms of developing habits over several weeks or months. Teachers cannot expect students to dive into their own understanding without giving them time to do it. They need to collaborate with each other, work through their thoughts, discuss, revise, and repeat. This can only be achieved when proper time is allotted.

It takes time. Empowering students isn’t an overnight change. And students may initially resist when they find that open-ended questions are harder than listening and taking notes. But when the teacher and students realize that learning isn’t about regurgitation—it is about understanding—the commitment to shifting the classroom dynamic will be worth it.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” —Nelson Mandela

Kelly Urlacher

Curriculum Designer at DreamBox Learning
Kelly Urlacher began her career as a sixth grade teacher in Sammamish, WA in 2002. Shortly after, she received her Master’s in Education with an emphasis in Technology and Curriculum Development. After years of dedicating herself to students and education within the classroom, she earned her National Board Certification in 2009. Kelly currently works as a Curriculum Designer for DreamBox Learning and continues tutoring high school students in mathematics.