Effective Teaching of Mathematics

The framers of CCSS-M have identified Standards of Mathematics Practice (SMP) based on practices and research on teaching and learning that consistently produce mathematics learners with high achievements. To be an effective teacher, one needs to know the content, pedagogy and models to deliver that content, and understand how students learn.

CCSS-M gives us what is important to teach and learn at what level. It describes the content and levels and nature of content mastery. However, teachers decide how to teach and assess. The goal of the first four to five years of students’ mathematics experience is to become proficient and comfortable in number concept, numbersense, and numeracy. After that, students use their understanding and fluency in numeracy skills to learn mathematics—algebraic and geometric models, and their integration.

The Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP) describe ways in which students should be engaged in increasingly demanding subject matter as they grow in mathematics expertise and content throughout the elementary, middle and high school years.

To support students’ growth in mathematical maturity, designers of curricula, assessments, and professional development should connect mathematical instructional practices to the mathematics content espoused in the CCSS-M. Without connecting content standards with instruction practice standards, we cannot achieve the goals of CCSS-M. Assessment, on the other hand, is to see whether that connection has been made or not.

The Mathematical objects (e.g., numbers of various kinds—natural to complex; geometric entities—shapes, figures, diagrams, functions; operations and procedures of different types—decomposition/ recomposition, manipulations of numbers of different kinds and forms, e.g., long-division; transformations and functions—static and dynamic, congruence and similarity, matrices and determinants, etc. are examples of components and manifestation of content standards.

Mathematics practice standards, on the other hand, describe what actions teachers are to take so that students make the mathematics content—language, concepts, procedures, and skills their own. Thus while we usually pay attention to nouns in content standards, for practice standards we must pay attention to verbs. The Standards of Mathematics Practice are action steps to make the content of the CCSS-M possible to take hold in the classroom and make students learners of mathematics.

Why SMP?
The National Mathematics Advisory Panel concluded that our students have reasonable, though incomplete, factual and procedural knowledge, but poor conceptual knowledge (e.g., many do not fully understand the base-10 number system, concepts of fractions, how decimals and fractions are related, the differences in arithmetic and algebraic reasoning). This is because of our over emphasis on procedural knowledge throughout children’s mathematics experience.

At the same time, the last 20 years of mathematics education reform indicate that American students, even many college students, neither have automatized fact retrieval nor have achieved fluency with procedures. For example, many students can perform routine procedures (e.g., procedures on fractions) but cannot justify the reasons for the steps involved or provide estimated answers before they execute the procedures.

Our students’ lack of conceptual understanding is a major cause of concern and requires investment after they leave school. For example, many corporations spend large sums of money in training high school graduates in their use of simple arithmetic. The problem has also reached college and university levels. Half of the students at community colleges, and 1 in 5 students at four-year institutions, require remedial courses in writing and mathematics, with community colleges spending more than 2 billion dollars on remediation and four-year colleges $500-million. As one university leader pointed out,

Many of us in higher education have observed an increasing number of students arriving at our doorstep not fully prepared to pursue a college degree. This is our collective problem as a nation. (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2014, June 14)

Framers and supporters of CCSS-M and SMP believe that this latest educational reform, if properly implemented, can alleviate some of these problems and narrow the college and career preparation gap. Their aim is to improve instruction so that students acquire mathematics ideas with conceptual understanding and procedural fluency so they can apply mathematical tools effectively and provide reasons for what they do.

Let us consider an analogy to illustrate this point: You can watch two people swim a length of a pool. They take nearly the same time to swim the same distance, but one of them churns the water more and takes more strokes. When this swimmer gets out s/he is breathing a bit heavier but is in great shape, so it is not too noticeable. The other swimmer took fewer strokes and seemed to glide through the water.

If we assess the performance only by a stopwatch, we will conclude that they are swimmers of the same competence. In actuality, they are not.  As the lengths pile up and the task gets harder, the second swimmer will do much better. No matter what the stopwatch said, s/he is a much better swimmer than the other. And if we ask the first swimmer to swim a long distance over deep water, s/he may very well drown.

Students who only memorize facts, formulas and procedures, without understanding, are like the first swimmer. They churn and work hard, and if they are gifted with an outstanding memory, they can pull it off for a while. These students can – and often do – get by in the early grades when they can rely on their strong counting skills and contextual clues (e.g., concrete materials and pictures) to “find” a fact but they typically hit a wall sometime around 4-5th grade when they have to deal with fractions and decimal numbers with problems involving unfamiliar content and complex mathematics vocabulary words. On the other hand, children who have the rich language, robust conceptual schemas, and clear understanding of and fluency in executing procedures develop into graceful, effortless swimmers in the waters of mathematics.

In cultivating greater conceptual knowledge, effective teachers do not sacrifice procedural or factual knowledge. Procedural or factual knowledge without conceptual knowledge is shallow and unlikely to transfer to new contexts. At the same time, conceptual knowledge without procedural or factual knowledge is ineffectual and inefficient in execution. It needs to be connected to procedures so that students learn that the “how” has a meaningful “why” associated with it. It is more effective to move from conceptual knowledge to procedural knowledge. Increased conceptual knowledge helps students move from competence with facts and procedures to the automaticity needed to be good problem solvers.

When teaching conceptual, procedural and factual knowledge, effective teachers ensure that students gain automaticity. Their students know that automaticity and understanding of procedures and facts is important because it frees their minds to think about concepts and making connections. This requires some memorization and ample practice and the ability to communicate with the support of reason.

What the Research Says
The data from the 13 million students who took the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests shows that the lowest achieving students worldwide are those who use memorization strategies – those who think of mathematics as methods to remember and who approach mathematics by trying to memorize facts and procedural steps. The implication is that we should not encourage rote memorization without understanding (i.e., in dividing fractions, teachers should not continue to use statements such as: “just invert and multiply”) but, instead, we should present appropriate models to create conceptual schemas and arrive at and master the procedure with proper understanding and mastery that is rooted in reasoning.

Because of the emphasis on procedural teaching, the U.S. has more memorizers than most other comparable countries. Perhaps not surprisingly mathematics teachers, driven by narrow and subjective tests (e.g., end of section tests in textbooks that value only the methods considered in the textbook), have valued those students over all others, communicating to other students that they do not belong in the mathematics class. Current research about how we learn and how our brains receive and process information shows that the students who are better memorizers may not have more ability or potential, but, unfortunately, we continue to value the faster memorizers over those who think slowly, deeply and creatively. We need students with mastery or conceptual, procedural, and factual knowledge for our scientific and technological future. Certain things should be memorized to relieve our work memory from mundane fact work to focus on creativity and applications.

Poor conceptual understanding comes at a cost. For example, if a student thinks that an equal sign means “put the answer here in the box,” she will be confused the first time she sees an equation with terms involving variables and multiple operations on both sides of the equal sign. Similarly, when a student first encounters factoring (whether in the case of whole numbers or polynomials), she ought to see its relationship to division and multiplication. But she may not be able to do so unless she has a deep conceptual understanding of multiplicative reasoning—that division and multiplication are inverse operations. She also will be slowed in factoring if she hasn’t memorized the multiplication tables, divisibility rules, prime factorization, and short division.

Factual and procedural knowledge are acquired by practice and stick-to-ness to tasks and practice. But, to be engaged in the task deeply, the task should be meaningful and the student should have understanding of the concepts and skills involved in it.

Of the three varieties of knowledge that students need, conceptual knowledge is difficult to acquire. It is difficult because knowledge is never transferred from one person to another directly nor is it developed without explorations, concrete manipulations, effective reasoning, and questioning. Rather, new concepts must build upon something that students already know when they explore the new concepts and ideas. Examples that are familiar to students and analogous to the current concept are useful to understand the concept.

SMP Principles
The writers of the CCSS-M were careful to balance the development of conceptual understanding, procedural skill and fluency, and application at each grade level. The standards are based on the idea that procedural skill and fluency expectations hinge on conceptual understanding. Fact fluency and procedural fluency help students to develop concepts, make connections, observe patterns, and form relationships between ideas, concepts, skills, and procedures thereby facilitating mathematical thinking. With mathematical thinking, students take interest in mathematics and develop mathematics stamina.

To achieve the different kinds of knowledge, we need to adopt pedagogical principles in every lesson that are informed by the Standards of Mathematics Practice:

  • Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  • Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
  • Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
  • Model with mathematics.
  • Use appropriate tools strategically.
  • Attend to precision.
  • Look for and make use of structure.
  • Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

Each of these standards adds to a teacher’s ability to develop the different components of knowledge, helping children acquire mathematical ways of thinking, creating interest for mathematics, and recognizing the power of mathematics. We need to incorporate these practices in our lessons if we want to have students who enjoy doing mathematics and achieve higher.

Examples of Standards
In future posts, I want to comprehensively develop how to implement each of these standards. At present, I want to consider a few illustrative examples.

Standard number one, for example, deals with developing understanding and engagement with a problem and creating mathematics stamina in solving it.

Solving a problem almost always depends on what tools (linguistic, conceptual, and procedural) one knows and how to connect those tools with the current problem. As students advance and encounter new problems, new concepts will increasingly depend on old conceptual knowledge. For example, understanding and solving algebraic equations depend on the understanding of the concepts of equality, variable, arithmetic operations, operations on fractions and integers, ability to generalize, etc. In solving problems factual, procedural, and conceptual knowledge all go together. And to stay engaged with the problem requires a student to have mastery of these prerequisite tools.

Familiarity is not the only ingredient necessary for successful problem solving. Students are more likely to understand abstract ideas when they see many diverse examples in the classroom that depict the conceptual components, schemas, and constraints of the ideas. In such instances, they can learn the essential properties in the concept of the problem (e.g., in fractions, the division of the object into equal parts and what is equal there) and which properties are incidental (e.g., in fractions, that the resulting parts need to be whole numbers).

Standard number seven: to look for structure in mathematics concepts and procedures is at the heart of understanding mathematics. Students need to realize that mathematics is the study of patterns—the underlying structures. Students frequently fail to understand the concept if they are not helped to discern patterns—to look for the structure—commonalities among examples and what is different in these examples.

Indeed, when the teacher introduces a concept through an abstract definition alone, e.g., the standard deviation is a measure of the dispersion of a distribution, students miss the conceptual understanding of the concept of standard deviation. The standard deviation is dependent on the spread; therefore, our examples should show the impact of that spread on standard deviation: Two groups of people have the same average height, but one group has many tall and many short people, and thus has a larger distribution and standard deviation, whereas the other group mostly has people’s heights right around the average, and thus has a small standard deviation.

If we introduce students to the formal procedure of finding the standard deviation too quickly, they won’t realize the relationship of spread on standard deviation. To realize the importance of such a component in the concept, we should also consider special cases and non-examples: e.g., to find the standard deviation when every piece of the data is the same, the spread has a particular meaning.

The third standard is the key to developing conceptual understanding in students. No conceptual understanding can be developed without emphasizing reasoning. To emphasize the importance of reasoning— concrete and abstract, examples, non examples, and counter examples play a crucial role.

Let us consider the definition of prime number: A number is called prime if it has exactly two distinct factors, namely, 1 and itself. The definition of prime number has two key features: it has factors and there are exactly two of them. 2, 3, 5, etc. are prime numbers as they have two factors only. It is important to give examples of prime numbers and examples of numbers that are not prime and the reasoning behind the choice. Examples emphasize the components of the concept, and “non examples” help students see the subtleties and nuances of the concept. For example, why is 1 not a prime number? (It has only one factor.) Why is 0 not a prime number? (0 is divisible by any non-zero number; therefore, it has more than two factors.)

The discussion to discern similarities and differences—comparing and contrasting examples, helps students to acquire the language and conceptual knowledge with rigor. With the help of appropriate language and transparent models, conceptual knowledge is converted into procedural knowledge. For this to happen, the conceptual (representational models—concrete and pictorial) should be congruent with abstract, procedural models. And with practice, procedural knowledge is then converted into factual knowledge. This practice should take place in a variety of problems and problem situations that are related to the procedure to arrive at the appropriate level of fluency.

If students fail to gain conceptual understanding, it will become harder to catch up, as new conceptual knowledge depends on the old. Students will also become more likely to simply memorize algorithms and apply them without understanding.

Helping Students Learn Concepts and Procedures
In our schools, much is made of the use of manipulatives to help children understand abstract concepts in mathematics, but many manipulatives and models themselves are abstract (students treat them as a symbol for something else), and not all manipulatives help learning—they sometimes impede it. This is most likely when manipulatives are so visually interesting that they distract from their purpose, when their relationship to the concept to be represented is obscure, or when they are used for rote counting. Manipulatives seem helpful because they are concrete; to be helpful, they should satisfy certain properties.

To illustrate the idea of a fraction, one might divide a cookie in two for the purpose of sharing it with a student. The concreteness of this example is likely less important than its familiarity. In contrast, suppose I cut a hexagon into two pieces and said, “See? Now there are two equal pieces. Each one is half a hexagon.” That example is concrete but less effective because it is unfamiliar; the student has no experience with divided hexagons, and the purpose of sharing is also missing.

Concreteness, in itself, is not a magical property that allows teachers to pour content into students’ minds. It is the familiarity that helps because it allows the teacher to prompt students to think in new ways about things they already know. However, familiarity also may create some misconceptions, half a pizza, half a cookie, half a glass are not precise as key characteristics of fractions may be missed. Students know a fraction when they focus on: (a) What is my whole here? (b) How many parts are there in this whole? (c) Are the parts equal? (d) Do all the parts together make the whole? (e) What is the name of each part? (f) How many of these parts will make the whole? And (g) What is the new name of the whole in the light of these parts? The teacher’s language, questions, and sequence of activities with materials transform the concrete models into representations—pictorial and abstract.

A teacher must move from familiar materials and models to the form that shows all the attributes of the concept and then can lead to abstract representations that are congruent to the abstract procedure. As concepts become more complex, it becomes harder to generate familiar examples from students’ lives to generate mathematics conceptual schemas, and teachers may have to use analogies more often. In such cases, a familiar situation is offered as analogous to the concept under discussion, not as an example of the concept.

An Example of Implementing SMP
In order to focus instruction responding to CCSS-M and applying SMP, teachers need to identify the essential language, concepts, procedure and skills in each major standard. SMP does not advocate a “one size fits all” model or a boxed curriculum. Essential Elements of each lesson informed by SMP include: Integration of language, concepts, and procedures, Multisensory (appropriate and efficient models), decomposition/ recomposition of problem components, Synthetic-Analytic (seeing patterns and analyzing the problem), Structure (logical language categories), Sequential (simple to complex), Cumulative (continually making connections), Repetitive, cognitive (meta), Diagnostic and Prescriptive (design lesson to assure progress and plan next lesson around noted errors that need additional reinforcement).

Let us illustrate this process in one specific mathematics standard. Mathematics standard 4.OA.A.3 (CCSS-M, 4th grade) says:

Solve multistep word problems posed with whole numbers and having whole-number answers using the four operations, including problems in which remainders must be interpreted. Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity. Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding.

This standard includes only a few sentences, but involves several different terms, concepts, procedures, and skills. To make sense of and understand them, students need to know the meaning of these terms and concepts and execute the procedures.

There is a need to delineate these elements, focus on them, teach them, help students master them, connect them with other concepts and procedures, and then assess all of these elements.

There should be a clear understanding of what and how to represent each concept, procedure and the skill involved in this standard. Every concept and procedure involved in this standard should be transformed into a set of concepts and skills to be learned, mastered, and applied by the students. In the context of CCSS-M, teaching should be to acquire understanding; students should arrive at fluency and should be able to apply concepts and skills contextually.

Step # 1
Language and Concepts

  • Know the meaning of each word and term in order to translate from English to mathematical equations
  • Identify the unknowns and understand the role of these unknowns; know the relationship(s) between knowns and unknowns

Step # 2
Language and Concepts

  • Represent terms and words into appropriate mathematics symbols; translate multi-step word problems into/by equation(s)

Skills and Facts

  • Identify the units and the domain and the range of the variable(s) involved in the problem

Step # 3

  • Solve multistep word problems by establishing the sequence of arithmetic operations

Skills and Facts

  • Know and apply the properties of equality; mastery of arithmetic facts; execute procedures for whole numbers efficiently; know the order of operations

Step # 4
Concepts and Procedure

  • Assess the reasonableness of the answer

Skills and Facts

  • Numbersense: Use mental computations such as rounding to estimate the outcome of an operation

Step # 5
Language and Concepts

  • Interpret the answer including the remainder if involved; express the division problems in multiple ways

Skills and Facts

  • Add, subtract, multiply and divide whole numbers fluently with understanding; know the role of numbers in each operation, e.g., know the role of remainder in practical situations

Learning with rigor using SMP means that the students not only understand the concept and procedures but also see that a particular method(s) may have limitations and that the context of the problem defines the applicability and efficiency of the method.


Effective Teaching of Mathematics