Three Tips for Remote Mathematics Instruction

May 8, 2020

Last week, we posted three tenets to guide as you navigate remote ELA instruction. Whether you are a teacher or parent, building and maintaining your students’ understanding of mathematics can also be challenging. To that end, we’d like to share three ideas for navigating remote mathematics instruction. 

Here are the tenets: 

Talk about math with your students 

Finding mathematics in everyday life can be a powerful tool for engaging your students. For early elementary students, this can mean a focus on counting and situations that involve addition or subtraction, as they come up in your life at home: “How many toys do we need to pick up?” “If we put two more cups on the table, how many will there be in total?” Upper elementary students can be asked about fractions and multiplication or division situations: “If there are 12 cookies, how many can each of us have?” “If we washed two-thirds of your shirts, how many are still in your drawer?” Middle school students can be asked about situations involving ratios, rates, proportions, and percents. For example, students can be asked to estimate sales tax or calculate quantities in a doubled or tripled recipe.  Our friends at Illustrative Mathematics have also provided some resources to promote student talk for middle school students. 

Ask “why” questions

During this time of disrupted schooling, it can be tempting to focus on mathematical procedures; these are often what we think of as “math.” These procedures will stick and be most useful, however, when students can base them on a strong conceptual foundation. It’s important to resist the urge to overemphasize memorization or practicing algorithms. Asking students why a mathematical statement is true can be a great way to both build and assess understanding. Of course, this looks different depending on the grade level of your student. Elementary students can explain why an addition equation is true or show why with drawings or manipulatives; in the middle grades and in high school, students may write or say more comprehensive explanations or use more advanced representations, like graphs or tables. It’s also fine to ask them to explain again, in more than one way, or for you to share your own, different thinking; you could also further the conversation by asking students how different careers might draw on the mathematics at hand or how it might apply to everyday situations. Justifying mathematical claims helps students to solidify their conceptual foundation so they will return to school ready to learn. 

Work with multiple representations

Whether we are multiplying two-digit numbers, combining like terms, or solving an algebraic equation, abstract representations are important aspects of math; it takes time, however, for students to develop comfort with numbers, variables, and other abstract symbols. To help your student along, working with either concrete objects or pictorial representations can help. For example, if your second grade student is working with symbolic representations like 13 + 49, manipulating or drawing place value disks may help to illuminate the meanings of expressions like these. Middle or high school students may work with tape diagrams, algebra tiles, or other representations. Remember that working with these should always be in service of developing comfort with abstract representations, so they should always be connected to written methods. To help, our math guides include numerous examples of grade-level problems that incorporate drawings and concrete objects.

If you have an aligned curriculum to support you with remote instruction, that’s great! If not, there are several free sources of high-quality curricula that you can use such as the curricula on our site, as well as Student Achievement Partners and Illustrative Mathematics. You can also direct families to check them out at home. Remember that less can often be more! Giving students substantial time to try problems, show their thinking, and then discuss online together will go a long way. Incorporating the ideas of math talk and multiple representation above, in conjunction with these resources, can also support students who are acquiring English.  And together, they can help ensure that students are developing skills and understanding even during this period of disrupted schooling.