Episode #159: Why Your Math Lesson Keeps Coming Up Short

Dec 13, 2021 | Podcast | 1 comment



In this episode, Jon & Kyle share a reason your math lesson may be coming up short and how you can fix it. 

Jon & Kyle share their 4 pillars of classroom norms that shape the routines and learning in their math classes and how you can create your pillars!

You’ll Learn

  • Why your math lesson might be coming up short;
  • How co-constructing your classroom learning pillars can help with classroom management;
  • How to prevent unproductive classroom behaviour such as excessive cell phone use or general lack of engagement;  limit unproductive.


Empower your teachers using a professional learning plan that sparks engagement, fuels deep learning, and ignites action and avoid mistakes that prevent powerful mathematics PD. 


Kyle Pearce: Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast. I'm Kyle Pearce.

Jon Orr: And I'm Jon Orr. We are from makemathmoments.com. And we are two math teachers who together with you, the community of Math Moment Makers worldwide, who want to build and deliver problem-based math lessons that spark curiosity, fuel student sense making.

Kyle Pearce: And ignite your teacher moves. My friends, we are together for another episode of the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast. Today, you've got Jon and I, we're going to dive right into an episode, I'm hoping it's going to be a shorter one today, but it's something that's been on our minds crosstalk quite a bit lately. Right, Jon?

Jon Orr: Yeah. And it's actually, we have lot of questions about this, because I think this is a common issue when teachers reach out to us, they'll say, "I did one of your Make Math Moments, tasks from your website." Or, "I used an old one that you guys had shared a long time ago." Or, "I've been dabbling with Peter Liljedahl's, The Thinking Classroom." And some people are like, "But it's like ... I feel like it's not what you guys say it is." Or, "I don't feel comfortable yet." Or, "This kid is like off-task or doing something else." And they say, "Is this the way it's supposed to be." Like, there's some frustration happening when you first start changing your lessons into problem-based lessons. And in this episode we want to talk about, what are the first things, like the norms? What are the teacher moves that are almost like behind the scenes. Right, Kyle?

Kyle Pearce: Yeah.

Jon Orr: That you have to kind of think about and remind yourself, and also remind your class so that you are setting yourself up and your students up for success. We don't talk about them a lot, but that's what this episode is. It's like, what do we have to do first before we even attempt a problem-based lesson or a three act math task or even a math talk. Right, Kyle?

Kyle Pearce: Absolutely. And a lot of times, we immediately when people say, "Hey, I've tried. You know, I've tried to teach a problem-based lesson. I've tried to sort of like do that real flipped classroom." Like we were talking about back in 157, I think it was.

Jon Orr: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kyle Pearce: And immediately we go to like, where's the breakdown happening in the lesson, but today's episode, we actually want to roll back, like Jon said, we want to roll all the way back to before you even talk about the structure of the lesson, we're talking about the classroom norms that are essential in order for any lesson to run without a hitch. And I don't care how you're teaching, whether you're teaching with a gradual release of responsibility class or whether you're doing a problem-based class or whether you're using some other model that you're using and you're comfortable using. The reality is that if there aren't certain things, certain routines in place in the classroom, we talk about classroom culture a lot and we believe you can build classroom culture through the math, but there are some things right up front that we have to make sure that are addressed.
And of course these would be some of the things around the routines of, like what's our math class going to look like and sound like when students come into our classroom? What's going to be appropriate behavior in our math classroom and what would be maybe considered not appropriate to do inside of that math classroom? So this can be really difficult and I've got to say Jon, the reason why it's on my mind is I know there's so many teachers around the world dealing with different classroom situations. You've got some teachers doing virtual, still. You have some teachers who are teaching extended blocks, like in my district and in your district, you're teaching like double block periods in some-

Jon Orr: Or all day.

Kyle Pearce: ... pieces.

Jon Orr: Yeah.

Kyle Pearce: And you guys, you're still all day, that is a really big challenge. And you can imagine, the shorter your class time is, the easier it is to let certain things slide and it to not completely break everything. But the longer that block stretches, those little details, it's like the more little details that are not in place, the harder it is for you to actually engage students for any significant amount of time. And also just to essentially get them to look your way and do some math learning.

Jon Orr: Yeah. And I'm glad you brought that up because I think what we share here today is going to help with dealing with situations like this, because I've got to think that, especially here in Ontario. We are still teaching in a pandemic. We are not back to normal at the time of this recording. And I think this will go out right after we record this. But teachers are either teaching four out of four with no prep break on some weeks. I feel like there's a ... Maybe it's my school, I don't know Kyle, if you've noticed this, it's like, there seems like sometimes morale is down a little bit. Like kids themselves, from my experience, my students that are coming in, it feels different from previous years. I know there's a lot of frustrations that I'm feeling in my classroom that I haven't felt in previous years before the pandemic.
And even the last year, even though we were teaching all day with the same group of kids, I don't think I felt the same frustrations I'm feeling now back then, like even last year. So it's almost like the students themselves feel a little different, I think coming in and there's an adjustment period here and teachers are dealing with that. They're dealing with behavioral issues on a regular basis. So the other thing was, we were talking about this before we recorded, is that normally I think frustration of teachers' high not only with student behavior or student engagement, but also like just feeling a sense of belonging, going to school or going to the workplace. We talked about this before, in the sense of like before the pandemic, we would go to the building and you would go to your classroom and your classroom thing.
But at lunchtime, the lunchroom was jam packed. People were sharing stories and back and forth. And what did you do this weekend? And we all used to sit around the table and share all of those things and you felt like that camaraderie. You felt that belonging, that you've got these people that you can share with and sometimes decompress for that 35 minutes of your lunch time. Maybe that's on your prep time too. You might have those conversations, but we are more an isolated now, because those big group tables can't happen still. So I think there's a lot of frustrations happening around like, "I go to work, but then I just go home." You know, it's not like that. Maybe the listeners here aren't feeling like that, but I know that I am. And I know that it's helped me think about what we're going to discuss here because it's helped my classroom to reevaluate and re-comeback and recenter where we are.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. And you know, a lot of these things, of course, when we're recording this, we are well into the school year. So some people might be thinking, would've been nice to know this at the first day of school.

Jon Orr: Right.

Kyle Pearce: And the reality though is that it's never too late. It's never too late to sort of hit that pause button and sort of reflect and think about like, what are the things that are working in my classroom and what are the things that maybe aren't working so well. And sometimes I think we jump to conclusions around why students might not be engaged, but a lot of times it comes down to sort of just the expectations that are set or maybe not clearly outlined. Right? And I think that can happen as well. Like Jon, you're in the scenario where you with a group of students all day, and I feel like it could be easier to maybe let things slide than to kind of have maybe a tighter ship like you might have when it's a regular length class. Right?

Jon Orr: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kyle Pearce: And the reality is though, is that all of these little pieces sort of add up, or you can almost say subtract away from the effectiveness of whatever it is that you're going to be doing in the classroom. And I've been in a lot of classrooms, something I've noticed, and this is just a general observation, is that students to me, having been working with teachers mostly virtually last year, this year, I'm back working in schools with students and what I'm noticing is a big difference between just the general accepted use of cell phones, for example, in the classroom, just in general. And I'm just seeing it, this isn't a blame teacher's thing, because I think it has a lot to do with the fact that students for more than a year, in some case were online left to their own devices literally, and had that phone there the entire time.
And it's almost like that addiction has sort of grown and has really busted into not only in the classroom, but in the hallways, students are buried in their phones. And that's one thing that I'm noticing. And I can imagine how it's like, "Do I really want to bark up that tree?" But I guess the message I have is it's almost, it's so worth it to work on some sort of norm with the students. Right?

Jon Orr: Yeah.

Kyle Pearce: And try to figure out like, how can we do this? Especially if it is a long period, how could we do this, where maybe everybody wins. And I know Jon, you and I have talked a few times about this, what are some things that you've used in your classroom to try to, again, I would say this one is like, it's a huge gatekeeper to student engagement. Right? If that phone's there, it could be really challenging, no matter what you do in order to bust through whatever it is that they're thinking about in that phone. Right?

Jon Orr: Right. Right. Yeah. And so I guess this comes out to the big up message we want to share in this episode is, the elements that go into your classroom design before you could attempt to do a lesson, or the math talk, or the problem-based lesson, or a would you rather, or any activity you're going to do in your class. These norms have to be set. And then like you said, Kyle, they can be revisited. They can be retouched, but that's really the message here in which, I've shared this, I think in one other episode before, and actually we were trying to figure out which one it was and there's so ...

Kyle Pearce: We have so many.

Jon Orr: ... We actually have a lot, and I couldn't find it, in which episode it was. But really, I feel like when I have discussions and recenter with my students, because I definitely have these issues too, Kyle. I've got students who no matter how engaging of my lesson is and how I've set these things up, we have to come back and recenter and re-talk about what our classroom pillars are. And that's usually when I make decisions or we as a class make decisions and everything kind of falls back to these four classroom pillars that I usually outline on day one, as what I want math class to look like. And I think I'm going to share my four pillars, but I think it almost doesn't matter what my four pillars are for you. I think it matters what you should choose as good values you want to see in your math class. Right?
So think about what do you want good learning to look like in your math class. And when you come up with that, what do that look like? Think about what are the big things that I can always fall back on as any decision that gets made in the classroom versus the late policy, the assessment policy, the norms about going to the bathroom and the cell phone use policy. Like everything that gets made, every decision that you make as a teacher or a kid makes in the classroom, should fall back on these things that you want to represent good learning. That's what I usually do with my students. It's like we remind ourselves about these four pillars of learning in our math class or four good things about what we want our math lessons to look like. And it has to deal with what I value in good learning with my students.
And usually on the first day we get students to kind of brainstorm what they think good learning should look like. And I already know what four, I'm going to talk about, Kyle. So it's kind of like, I funnel them with some lots of brainstorming to like what we do with our three act math tasks and our problem-based lessons with our notices and wonders. We know exactly which learning goal we're going to do that day. It's the same idea with these four pillars of learning, but basically everything that we decide in our class falls down to being curious, being collaborative, valuing growth, and getting challenged. And that's every one of my classes I start with in the beginning, we always talk about these four things. So how our three part framework fit into these four things, for sure.

Kyle Pearce: Something that I think is worth mentioning again, is this idea of how you're essentially generating these norms from the student voice. Right? And we talk about this a lot when we're doing a problem-based lesson, we want student voice to come through and we want them to feel like their voice is being honored, it's being heard. Well, the same is true in the classroom norms. There's kind of two ways you can go, right and of course everything in between. But one way is you come in and say, "Here's the rules."

Jon Orr: Right.

Kyle Pearce: "Here's the expectation, here's how this is going to go." And oftentimes, and I've been there, I've done that. I'm guilty of that. I've sort of like, "Let's get the show on the road, here we go. Here's how it's going to be. Boom, boom, boom, boom." And for some students they're like, "All right." They come into line and that's fine. But for other students, they might not. And then the part that you don't get when you sort of just lay it down, here's how it's going to be.

Jon Orr: Right.

Kyle Pearce: Students often don't understand the why. It's just like math class. Right? It's like, we want them to understand the why of the mathematics. Well, with these classroom norms, we want them to understand, the why, behind why we don't want the cell phone out. It's not just because I don't want you to have a cell phone, or I don't want you to be able to message your friends. It's because it's interfering or it's distracting you from hitting one of our pillars. And Jon I'll repeat them. You said be curious, collaborative, growth. It's everything is about growing and learning and is a challenge, right?

Jon Orr: Yeah. I can elaborate a little bit more. I'll elaborate a little more. This is what I usually do with our students. Once we kind of brainstorm, I'll kind of like summarize where we are. And basically I always start with being curious, with them to remind them or share with them that, hey, this math class is going to be maybe a little different than before. Because I'm going to ... All the lessons that we do, all the learning that we're going to do, I'm going to rely on your curiosity, because curiosity is so important when you go to learn something, think about the things you've learned. Maybe you've went down a path and you learn how to play the guitar. Maybe you learned about something in else, but you were curious to do that. And so curiosity is like, it opens the gates of your brain so that you are receptive to learning.
So, I'm going to put you in situations where it sparks your curiosity. I'm going to rely on you to be curious about how to solve different problems. So we have a big discussion about why curiosity is super important, which does fall into our three part framework, being sparking curiosity, being one of the big things there. And the second piece that I stress a lot with my students is this collaborative nature. And that kind of goes hand in hand with what we learn with Peter Liljedahl and his Thinking Classroom and his group work and his random grouping. But I come at it with the students in a sense that you are going to be collaborative. I'm going to put you in groups. I'm going to have you work with different students every single day, because we need to feel comfort here in the room. We need to be, if we're going to share ideas, if we're going to strengthen our math understanding, you're going to voice those out to the class.
In order for you to do that, you have to feel a comfort with the people in the room. And if you don't know them and you don't work with them, then you won't feel that comfort. So we have to work with each other on a regular basis. So we will feel comfortable. And if we feel threatened in our room, then we won't share and our brain will go into shutdown. So we need to make sure that we routinely work with each other so that we get to know each other and we understand each other and we can help each other. So collaboration is so important in our room and that would be one of the pillars.
So lots of things can fall back. Kid might say like, "I want to sit with so and so today." And I say, "Well, remember that one of our pillars is collaboration and we're working in random groups so that we can make sure that we're safe and feeling comfortable with each other and if we're always going to work with the same people, then that violates that pillar. And remember we set that pillar at the beginning of the year. Like every decision being made can come back to that. Think of the cell phone use policy, Kyle, if a kid is on his cell phone, when you're doing group work, then they're violating the collaboration pillar, right? Because I'm on my cell phone and I can't be sharing my understanding or working with this group, because I'm looking over here at my cell phone. So it's an easy kind of like, "Hey, let's put that away right now, because we're working in groups and you're violating the collaboration pillar right now, because, hey, if they need your help here and we're working together and we've got to do this."

Kyle Pearce: And I love too that you could really pick any of those pillars. And that would be a reason for, let's say a cell phone or just general disengaged behavior. Because again, you're not growing right now. You're not being challenged. You're not being collaborative. And you're not being very curious because you're not involved in this situation as well. And the part I love about these pillars is because again, you're being super clear, so everything we're asking of students, it's not an, us versus them. It's a, "Hey, I just want to remind you about what we were talking about." And you know, this one, I had a conversation with a teacher today about this very thing, and it's the idea of growth and about students participating. It's a fine line because I know here in Ontario and many places, you can't actually evaluate students on their participation. I know some places still do this, but here in Ontario, participation is not something that is supposed to actually influence-

Jon Orr: What do you mean?

Kyle Pearce: ... Your final grade.

Jon Orr: Yeah. What you mean, Kyle is like, "I come to class today and hey, I raised my hand and I gave an answer." And now the teacher puts a little check mark in the box that says five points to you.

Kyle Pearce: Exactly. And so that was the old school participation. But with this pillar that you're referencing with growth in the classroom, I was trying to help this teacher sort of bring this to light, is that when students are in the classroom, they have to know, right? So again, you're calling it pillars. I said, they have to know that I'm watching what they do in order to help determine where they are growing, where their strengths are and where we might need to do more work together. And what that means is that I'm using that as evidence of your learning. And we're not going to allow you to, for example, sit back and do nothing during class.

Jon Orr: Right.

Kyle Pearce: And then come and just write an assignment or write a test and maybe the student does really well on the test. It's like, but you haven't actually shown me throughout the learning, right? Because one snapshot test doesn't evaluate everything, right? I mean, I know oftentimes-

Jon Orr: Consistency.

Kyle Pearce: ... We overweight it, but ultimately it's like, I want to see that growth, I want to see where you are and I want to actually give you credit for the growing that you're doing and the growth that you're doing through the different challenges, which is this fourth pillar that we're going to be giving you in the classroom. That we're not going to be sitting here, you're not going to sit back and sort of just copy things down and then do the work later to memorize. That's not what were talking about here. We're talking about you doing the work together, collaboratively, challenging yourself, getting curious about why things are happening and where they're happening. And we're going to bring that together and use that and make that the core of our classroom. And again, all of these ideas, while we talk about them in our three part math framework, the reality is that these ideas are things that you can do regardless of the model that you're using or following, right?
These are pillars that you can elicit from students. But again, you've got to be clear on them. I think that's one of the key pieces and messages from this episode, is like we, as the educator, we have to know what it is that we want our students to be doing in our classroom. Right? I know I don't like when they're on a phone, but what is it that I would rather them be doing right now? And if it's just, put it away and watch me, well, then I don't know. That's going to be harder to convince a student of, but if it's, "No, no, I want you to be engaged in this problem that everybody's working on and contribute your voice." That might be something that a student might not love the idea at first, but ultimately they could see why you need to be a part of this class and of this discussion and not on your phone or not disengaged.

Jon Orr: Yeah. And it's important, like you said, is that sometimes you have to have the reminders. Sometimes you have to cycle back because I know Kyle, like I do these on day one and I'm teaching grade 9's right now and I've got all various levels of grade 9. We're in an open class right now. Right. We went detracking and for here in Ontario, which has lots of great advantages here and I do enjoy this class, but the varying levels, you've got students who are like, "I hate math class." They came in that way and sometimes there's almost like you feel like there's nothing you're going to be able to do there. And I feel like when we'd have our pillar talk and then we had to do that this week, we had to cycle back to the pillar talk, because sometimes students and especially, this happened to me a lot before I started to have the pillars talk at the beginning or middle, but it definitely helps when students are thinking that the math teacher is the enemy.
Right. It's like, "I'm here because I have to be." And then it's like, "I'm going to make sure, I don't really want to be here, so I'm going to try to figure out how to get out of class." Or, "How, I'm going to be ... how do I hide my phone under here?" When I have the pillar talk with that student or the group of students or whole class sometimes, and I try not to do the whole class all at once on these talks. I think it reminds that student that says, "Look, I'm not the enemy, I'm here because care about these four things." And we always said that, right? Like everything that I've done in this classroom is because I care about these four things for you, right? I'm asking you to put your device away because, you know, I'm a jerk, I'm the enemy, I'm trying to make your life miserable.
It's because I want to challenge you when I want to see your growth. And I can't see that if these are the things blocking that. Right? So like those small conversations are important and it's important to cycle back. And I had to do that with a few students this week.

Kyle Pearce: And you know, what too, like something interesting as well. And I think it's important for educators to think about, because again, you're referencing how this is something you do on like the first day of school and you cycle back to, but that also doesn't discount from, let's say maybe you didn't set the norms as clearly as maybe you might have wanted to. I know I didn't, for many years, I came in and I had like, "This is the rules and just follow the rules and if you don't follow the rules, there's a consequence." Well, it's like that talk is different, if students aren't doing what you would like them to be doing, there's just like this general disengaged behavior happening in the classroom, where it's sort of like they're there because they have to and they're going to like do, I guess like the bare minimum of what you ask of them. It's like, maybe now's a good time to like, think this through, write down your pillars. They don't have to be the same four that we've referenced here.

Jon Orr: Right.

Kyle Pearce: But I bet you they're going to have some sort of commonalities and maybe do that brainstorm. I think it's a worthwhile thing to do in the middle of a semester or a school year. If things aren't going well, you're just feeling like every lesson is a struggle and there's teachers out there who have this, or maybe you're a coach and you're listening to this or a consultant and you're listening. You're going, "I work with teachers who are struggling with this idea." Helping them to go, maybe we need to hit that pause button. Let's ask the students, let's get the students talking about when asking them, why? Why is this a problem? Why is this a challenge? And I think about things as productive or unproductive, right? So what's happening in the classroom right now that's productive? And you could highlight some of those ideas.
And then after, what are some of the things that maybe aren't so productive? And again, productive to what? You've got to highlight some of those ideas that are really important to you. So get those out, get the kids sharing. What is good learning? What does that look like and sound like to them? And then try to help them come to the conclusion or the realization, that, "Oh, maybe doing this or not doing that is actually more of an issue than I realized." I think by doing this, it's never too late. And the reality is, it might feel like you have to be really on the ball for a little while after. You can't have the talk and then go back to things are just happening the way they're happening. It's got to be like a bring everybody back, oh, quick reminder. Let's check out this pillar. I feel like we're doing this really well right now, but this over here, I don't know.
So, ultimately at the end of the day, Jon, we've talked about some of these things and again, I'm hoping people are maybe nodding their head a little bit, because again, sometimes we go a little too far into the lesson itself, or my task wasn't engaging enough, or something about you and the lesson you planned when in reality, oftentimes it's something bigger than that. It's something that we have to sort of zoom out and forget the lesson for a second and just think about how do we want this classroom running? How do we want these routines looking and sounding in our classroom? And if we can do that and if we can sit and think with intentionality about what it is that you want to elicit from those students, then you can have that conversation and start making steps in the right direction.

Jon Orr: Uh-huh (affirmative). Definitely, definitely. So let's wrap some of the summary up here, Kyle. So big takeaways, I think we want to remind here is don't be afraid to take that step back, like Kyle just said and reflect and pause and rethink and rejig, if needed to. Think about what's working well, what's not working well. How can you make changes? Can you do that zoom out, give your self permission, I think, to reflect and reset. I think sometimes that's hard for us to give ourselves that permission. You aren't a Math Moment Maker because you're perfect. You're a Math Moment Maker because you reflect, you plan, you replan, you retry. If things aren't going well, you try again. I think that's what makes you Kyle, a Math Moment Maker, me, you at home right now, that's what makes a Math Moment Maker. Not, "Hey, I'm always engaging all the time." It's because we try this. We make adjustments along the way. And I think that's really what makes a great Math Moment Maker.

Kyle Pearce: Awesome stuff. Awesome stuff. Friends as always, how are you going to reflect not only on your classroom and how things are running in your classroom, but how are you going to reflect on this episode? It kind of goes hand in hand here. Right? So lots to think about after this particular episode. So have you written these ideas down? Are you a sketch note artist? Have you sent out a tweet or called a colleague? Be sure to engage in some form of reflection to ensure that this learning sticks.

Jon Orr: Yeah. And also in order to ensure you don't miss out on new episodes of our podcast as they come out every Monday morning, be sure to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.

Kyle Pearce: Yes. And if you like what you're hearing, please share the podcast with a colleague and help us reach an even wider audience, especially because now we've got these things going on YouTube. So some of you, hello, everybody, we're waving at some of you on YouTube right now. Every Monday, not only do we release the podcast on YouTube, but we also release helpful videos, such as our Math Talks video recently, or how you can use questioning to emerge mathematical behaviors in math class. So head over to makemathmoments.com and look for us on Twitter @MakeMathMoments, or on YouTube at Make Math Moments and hit that subscribe button.

Jon Orr: Show notes and links to the resources that we discussed here in this episode can be found at makemathmoments.com/episode159. Again, that's makemathmoments.com/episode159. And we've got transcripts over there too. I forgot to mention that, but transcripts are also found on that link.

Kyle Pearce: Awesome. Well, until next time Math Moment Maker friends, I'm Kyle Pearce.

Jon Orr: And I'm Jon Orr.

Kyle Pearce: High fives for us.

Jon Orr: And a high five for you.

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1 Comment

  1. Sarai

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It’s overwhelming how reflective we teachers must be. Listening to you reflect on your experiences and insights reminds me it’s worth it. There are days when the activities and lessons feel like a bust. But more often than not, my students’ attitudes towards math are improving. We keep math journals in our classroom in which my students get to reflect on their attitudes towards an activity or problem. One day I posed the questions: 1)Which school subject do you find to be the most challenging? 2)Which subject do you enjoy the most? I was pleasantly surprised when the majority of their responses was math, for BOTH questions. When we take those moments to engage with our students and dialogue about what’s working and what isn’t, it gives them autonomy to be thinkers and reflectors as they take charge of their learning. It’s rewarding to see what open and flexible collaboration births.


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