Effective Remote Math Instruction Starts with Energy, Enthusiasm, and Engagement
And other lessons learned from teaching math online during a pandemic, featuring a Q&A with Dr. Raj Shah, K-5 Reveal Math Author
The sudden transition to fully remote instruction last spring challenged educators and students alike, across all disciplines and subject areas, to create a new way of learning that, despite missing the connection and structure of a brick and mortar classroom, could still deliver the same quality instruction, and foster the same level of academic achievement. And for math educators especially, whose instruction relies heavily on productive struggle and student-driven learning, teaching math via Zoom was a particularly daunting task.
Despite these challenges, teachers and students have flourished in this environment, taking with them new skills, habits, and ways of thinking to make teaching and learning even more effective.
To understand how math teachers, in particular, have adapted to the transition to remote learning, and the most significant lessons they learned from the experience, we sat down with math positivity expert, and Reveal Math K-5 author, Dr. Raj Shah.
Meet Dr. Raj Shah
Raj has always had an affinity for math. Powered by his love of math, he earned a Ph.D. in Physics in 1999, which led to a career in R&D at Intel. In 2008, he quit his job and founded Math Plus Academy, an after-school STEM enrichment program for kids ages 5–14. His mission is to introduce kids and adults to the wonders of mathematics. Dr. Shah also contributes his time to Math Teacher Circles, the Julia Robinson Math Festival, and is a founding member of The Global Math Project. He believes that everyone can enjoy math, develop strong number sense, and become a perseverant problem solver. Follow him on Twitter @drrajshah.
1) Describe the precautions you have put in place to protect the safety of your educators and students?
At Math Plus, we initially were all remote at the start of the pandemic. Now, both of our locations are open one day per week, while 80 percent of our students are all online.
We’ve always operated through small group classes. We used to have 10 or 11 students per class, but now we have six. They each get their own desk or table, and we make sure to sanitize their markers and whiteboards between every class. The teachers wear masks and the students wear masks, following the CDC guidelines.
2) What barriers did you face as you made the transition to more distance learning?
It took almost a month to train all the parents to use Zoom, which involved teaching them how to find the Zoom link and how to sit in a waiting room and not panic, all those small details. But now, everyone has seemed to have adjusted well. That was tricky for sure.
From a teacher’s perspective, my teachers were very accommodating and were able to make the transition very quickly. I bought all the teachers and students marker boards that they could use at home. I highly recommend markerboards because it is much easier for students to share their answers and much easier for teachers to see their answers over the Zoom camera. At first, we tried to make it as much like an in-person class as we could. We had teachers standing up, working at the marker board, imitating a true class.
3) How have you or your team changed their instructional approach to keep children engaged in math?
I think the biggest challenge teachers are facing currently is that you can’t see what the students are doing. That can be partly because some students don’t turn their cameras on. But even when they do have their videos on, I can’t look at their papers and check their progress while they are working on an assignment. That is really really tough.
The dead air time on Zoom is very scary. When the Zoom call goes dead silent, you really have no idea if everyone is working diligently on your problem, or thinking about the mathematics, or if they are just tuned out and aren’t doing anything.
It is impossible to have a clear understanding of engagement. We have tried to use the breakout rooms, and tried to use other things on occasion, like Desmos and the Activity Builder, where students can log in and the teacher can actually see what the students are doing as they go through the activity. And those programs help quell the anxiety teachers may be experiencing because they see which students are participating.
We are trying to move through the activities a little faster. In an in-person classroom, you might be able to let an idea or lesson sit and ruminate for ten minutes, but Zoom isn’t quite as conducive to that, so we might let it sit for three to five minutes, and then we can start asking, “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” and get the conversation moving. This helps maintain engagement levels because it is pretty easy to zone out when you are in your own house, and you’re getting distracted by the dog, and the parents, and the cooking, and the pots and pans, and everything else that is going on.
4) Any tips on how to make sure the learning experience is both effective and positive in an ever-changing environment?
You know how they say that the camera adds ten pounds? Well, I believe that Zoom lowers your charisma by ten pounds. We have encouraged our teachers to really take their energy and enthusiasm to new levels.
Enthusiasm can get lost in translation online, so teachers need to work hard to really get students excited and pumped up about the math.
Also, parents can see and hear everything a teacher is doing now, which adds a tricky new dynamic to the mix, because parents may not understand the pedagogy, or that silence is not only okay but encouraged. So we need teachers to be higher energy, and more encouraging to keep students engaged, and maintain that level of trust with the parent.
5) Any lessons learned from the experience or tips you would give to another school district or educator?
I recommend that students take ample breaks between Zoom classes, which involves some physical activities, so that their brains don’t get fried and it is easier for them to transition from one class to the other.
Also, you need to find a way to maintain connections and relationships. Spend the first half-hour of your first class learning everyone’s names, their hobbies, likes and dislikes. It feels weird to spend so much time on that, but you have to, because the kids don’t have any way to interact with one another or get to know each other. That connection is so important.
6) Do you think this shift to remote instruction has changed the way math is taught forever? Why or why not?
This has changed education forever. Before the pandemic, I tried to offer online classes three years ago, but nobody would sign up for them. We recently surveyed our clients who used to come to in-person classes and 60% said they were happy sticking with online classes due to the convenience of attending from home.
It is so much more convenient and flexible, and the kids are getting, for the most part, everything they were getting from an in-person class.
I have also noticed that many children are absolutely flourishing online. I have noticed that some of the kids who have a hard time focusing in class because of their neighbors, or can’t resist the temptation to have side conversations, are now much more focused!
I had one student who used to have a hard time focusing in class. She would find it hard to sit in her chair and participate. But now, in this online class, she is raising her hand, answering questions, and now I see that there was a wonderful little math brain in there that just needed the right environment to come to life. So for many students, remote learning will be much better for them.
7) What do you think are the biggest challenges math instructors, especially, are facing in today’s environment? How might they overcome these challenges?
Something I am always encouraging my instructors to do in their classrooms is to let go. Give the students the problem, but let them struggle, let them work through it, and give them the time to figure it out.
When you’re in the room, of course, it is easier to see that the students are working, and talking with one another, they’re thinking through this together. But on Zoom, it is harder to see that collaboration and effort. But that just means we need to find better tools that give us visibility into what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.
Read more from Raj Shah:
Math Chat Mondays #2: Making Math Fun
A Math Moment with Dr. Raj Shah, K-5 Reveal Math Author