6 Steps to Building a Positive Elementary Math Community

Building a positive math community in your classroom (and in your school) helps create a safe learning environment where students engage in deep and meaningful mathematics. Research has shown that when students believe that they can succeed in math and have the right support and scaffolding, they not only have a more positive attitude about math and feel more motivated, but are more likely to meet learning goals and perform better on assessments.

It takes time to build and maintain a positive math community, but it is well worth the effort as community sets the stage for deeper learning. Each classroom math community will vary since the student make-up in each classroom is different, but here are six steps to guide you as you and your students create the math community that works best for your class.

Step 1—Establish and Reinforce Math Norms

Community math norms help students know what is valued in math class and set the stage for what learning looks, sounds, and feels like. As I noted above, every math community will be unique, but for the community to thrive, students must have a voice in developing community norms. You might start by asking students what they think mathematicians do and how they work together to accomplish their shared goals. As you guide this discussion, consider how you can help students create a respectful, equitable community that values collaboration, risk-taking, and perseverance. And if they don’t think of it themselves, help them understand that math class is not only a place where they come together to learn, but also to have fun. To help you and your students get started, we’ve created a list below of ideas that students might consider as they develop their own unique community norms.

Lower Grades

  • I can learn
  • My classmates can learn
  • I can do math
  • I will share my ideas
  • I will listen while others share ideas
  • I will make mistakes, that’s OK

Upper Grades

  • Believe that everyone can learn
  • Believe that everyone can do math
  • Consider and value everyone’s ideas
  • Listen to and critique classmates’ ideas respectfully
  • Look for new ideas in classmates thinking
  • Ask questions to clarify understanding

Once your students have created their community agreement, post it prominently in the class and refer to it frequently. Reviewing the agreement regularly, helps students internalize and act upon the community norms they helped create. It’s also important to re-visit the agreement weekly and ask students if they need to refine or revise any part of the agreement. This not only reminds students that you value the math community but also reinforces the idea that a community grows and changes to meet emerging needs.

Step 2—Create a Safe Environment for Robust Student Discourse

It’s essential that students feel comfortable sharing their ideas with their peers. Creating an environment that encourages all students to participate in rich math talk shows students that every student is capable of learning math and that every voice is heard and valued. When kids explain a concept in their own words, justify their thinking, and respectfully challenge classmates’ ideas, they advance their learning and cement their understanding.

And as a teacher the most important thing you can do to promote robust student discourse is to ask students to defend their thinking. A teacher asking, “how do you know?” should not be a cue to the student to pick up their pencil and erase their work. Rather, this question should be posed regularly to reinforce the concept that in a math community, we explain our thinking. Sharing ideas and reasoning is how mathematicians in a positive community learn new strategies, uncover different approaches, and ultimately deepen their mathematical understanding.

Step 3—Recognize Mistakes as Part of the Learning Process

Mistakes are an essential part of learning math and help students not only advance their thinking, but also provide them with a real-world process, practiced by professional mathematicians, to work through possible solutions to a particular math problem. But all too often, students are fearful of making mistakes, especially if they believe that making a mistake may embarrass them in front of their peers. Establishing a classroom environment that encourages risk-taking and recognizes mistakes as part of the learning process, shows your students that mistakes aren’t something to fear, but rather a way to explore creative solutions, determine what doesn’t work and why, and ultimately stretch their thinking.

Step 4—Encourage Collaboration

The whole concept of a math community is of a space where students come together to learn from each other and to advance the mathematical understanding of all community members. When students work together, they learn new approaches, are exposed to different thinking, and as a result make connections between ideas, leading to deeper learning. Additionally, working together helps students persevere through difficulties as they discover that everybody finds some, if not all, of the work challenging. The realization that obstacles are common carries through to individual work and makes it more likely that students will persist when problems are hard. Finally, when kids learn from (and teach) each other they are empowered as mathematicians. And research shows that collaboration can improve retention.

Step 5—Honor All Contributions

Make sure you recognize when students exhibit behaviors that are aligned to your community math norms. For instance, if perseverance is a community norm, you might say, “I noticed that Michelle and David continued to work on a problem that they found difficult. They didn’t give up and they found a solution.” Or if risk-taking is a community norm, you could simply acknowledge when students share their thinking even when they haven’t fully developed their ideas. And in modelling how to recognize community norms, you show your students that they too can call out individual and collective behavior that promotes community learning.

It’s also important to celebrate the whole community. You might pay community bucks into a jar to mark students’ contributions to community norms. As a group, students can decide weekly how they want to spend their community dollars. Or you can do something fun when the entire community of learners masters a particularly complex concept.

Step 6— Find Your Own Math Community

Participating in a math community of fellow educators can help you establish a stronger math community in your classroom. Start with colleagues in your school and district. Create your own community norms to guide your collaboration. Establish ties with like-minded teachers across the country. Join a Facebook group, such as Build Math Minds or upper elementary Mix and Math from Brittany; a Twitter community such as #iteachmath, #mathchat, or #mtbos. Become a member of NCTM or NCSM, attend webinars like the free webinars ORIGO provides, and check in weekly for my new blog posts.

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Sara Delano Moore, Ph.D.

ORIGO Education

ORIGO Education has partnered with educators for over 25 years to make math learning meaningful, enjoyable and accessible to all.

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