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Math Outside the School Day: Focus on Process, not Content

When a student struggles with math, many schools find ways to provide that individual with additional time to learn the subject. While some schools schedule a supplementary math class for the student during the school day, other schools develop or leverage programs during Out of School Time (OST); options typically include before-school or after-school programs and summer school. My new whitepaper describes how schools can leverage OST, and includes the stories of four schools that successfully used OST and blended learning models to improve student achievement in mathematics.

Planning backwards from the goal is fundamental to success.

Every OST program should be planned backwards from the established learning goals. But most often, these learning outcomes are content goals rather than process goals. For example, it’s more likely that an after-school math program will focus on teaching students how to graph linear equations and use the order of operations rather than focus on teaching students how to “look for and make use of structure” (CCSS SMP 7) or “justify mathematical ideas and arguments” (TEKS 1G). Process and practice standards are relevant to all grade levels, and struggling students typically need additional support for learning how to think mathematically if they are going to successfully understand math content.

Yet most OST programs prioritize content outcomes and try to engage students in process and practice standards as a means of understanding the content. In reality, this should be flipped: content should serve the process standards. The processes and practices should be prioritized in OST programs as the most important, long-term learning outcomes. As the TEKS note, “The process standards describe ways in which students are expected to engage in the content.” And the CCSS note, “The Standards for Mathematical Practice describe ways in which developing student practitioners of the discipline of mathematics increasingly ought to engage with the subject matter as they grow in mathematical maturity and expertise throughout the elementary, middle and high school years.”

Process-driven lessons improve mathematical thinking.

Practically speaking, this means that teachers and schools would design their OST curriculum and daily lessons around process outcomes instead of content outcomes. When content is prioritized in a lesson, it sounds like this: “Today we’re going to learn about rational numbers on the number line. We’ll start by doing some exploration with the number line.” But when math practices are prioritized in a lesson, it sounds like this: “Mathematicians are always looking for interesting structures. Today we’re going to look at how the number line is structured and see if there are any useful relationships we can find.” In a content-driven lesson, students usually become more familiar with the math topic, but there’s no guarantee they’ve improved their ability to think mathematically. But in the process-driven lesson, students improve their mathematical thinking and understand the content as well.

Struggling math students can certainly use more time engaging in mathematics, but precisely what they spend that extra time on is critical. Schools should consider OST math programs as a great opportunity to help students spend more time thinking like mathematicians rather than as simply additional time to focus on specific knowledge or building narrow skills.