Developing 21st century skills in the Math class
The traditional Math class
Looking back to our Math class from school days, most of us would recall going through tons of formulas and theories. If you can solve a Math problem, both in the classroom and in the exam hall, people would see you as a successful student even though you have no clue why you chose a particular formula in the first place. Therefore, traditional Math class mainly revolved around remembering a series of Math formulas (rote-memorization) instead of scrutinizing the equation (critical thinking). The higher the level of education, the more challenging the problem would become. Consequently, students needed to practice over and over again until those formulas stick in their brains. The typical classroom routine would involve introducing today’s topic, writing an equation on a whiteboard, then jumping into the problem session where the teacher might provide an additional problem to encourage students to apply what they have learned. In this type of classroom, the teacher would play the active role, while the student would be passive. Unfortunately, this kind of lecture-based learning still exists, and it has limited the opportunity for students to see the importance of Math in their daily lives. Many students only see Math as a stepping stone to get a degree, and some question the point of learning things that they are not going to use without realizing that Math touches many parts of our lives. Passive learning cannot cover the connection between abstract knowledge and real-world situations. For example:
“There is one square table. Each table can seat four people. If you place 20 square tables together end to end for dinner, how many people can sit on this table?”
If this problem appeared in a traditional Math class, the teacher would give an equation, generally using numbers to replace certain letters. However, this teaching method is not readily understandable by all students. If one comes up with a different idea that is not correct, this might result in a lack of self-confidence around Math or a negative attitude towards the subject. On the other hand, if the pedagogy is adjusted to include group discussion that draws out everyone’s opinion, it could motivate students to explore the background of the equation and address the connection between Math and their daily lives.
Math class in the 21st century
What if we use the active learning approach to solve the same problem? The teacher can draw five separate tables and let the student figure out how many people can sit by themselves. Active learning will foster participation by allowing the student to contribute ideas and initiate a discussion with others. Therefore, they can compare the similarities and differences of each solution.
But first, the teacher has to anticipate students’ answers, including the correct and incorrect answers which are likely to come up. The teacher can pick out some different answers so that the students can share their ideas. Below is an example of how the teacher can anticipate how the students would solve the problem:
5+5+2 = 12
For anticipating how the student might misunderstand the problem, 4×5 = 20, in this case, the student multiplied the number of tables with chairs without noticing that we will lose two chairs when we put the table end to end. The second case would be 4×5-4, where students attempt to multiply the tables by the number of chairs and remove a pair of chairs close to each other, without considering that some tables were attached on both sides.
After exploring all possible answers, the teacher will put the students into groups, ask them to draw a picture, and write down the mathematical expression. The teacher can observe how students respond to the problem and find volunteers to present to the class, leading to a discussion regarding how many ideas there are, who else has a different opinion, and discuss the easiest way to solve the problem. As students begin to understand how to solve the puzzle of five tables connected end to end, the teacher will ask students to find answers to 20 tables connected through the same discussion process.
According to active learning research from the University of Washington, students in a lecture-based learning environment are 1.5 times more likely to fail than those who study in an active classroom. A curriculum that aims to build a better mathematical understanding by interacting and discussing can foster students’ skills that 21st century learners need, such as critical thinking, creative thinking, communicating, and collaborating (the 4 C’s of 21st century learning). The classroom that focuses on those skills will help students better understand and apply knowledge in daily life. To solve real-world problems, we need to relate to real-life situations and tap into our existing skills and knowledge. If the first approach does not work, we have to look to see why objectively. With this method of learning, we can spark curiosity, interest, and motivation. The particular perspective would help students develop lifelong learning habits outside the classroom at their own pace.
In ‘Principle to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All,’ they have highlighted three essential parts of an effective Math class: 1) provide students a challenging problem 2) build the bridge between what students have learned and new knowledge. The link will help students comprehend what is in their hands and question whether there are any misunderstandings. 3) Interactions among peers in the classroom through discussion sessions lead to joint learning. Once students start building 21st century skills from problem-solving through interaction, and discussion, they will eventually have the skills to integrate across multi-disciplines, STEM education, which will contribute to their ability to solve complex problems. As a result, the curriculum with methodologies that harness 21st century skills is the key to learning success.
The power to create an accessible Math class for everyone
Kenan understands the importance of equipping students with the necessary skills in Math class. Therefore, we attempt to enhance teachers’ comprehensive understanding and aspirations to create impactful changes in the Math class. To better understand and ignite change, we utilize international best practices and invite experienced master teachers to join our workshops, simultaneously building school leadership development. Our goal is to transform classrooms into experimental spaces filled with trials, errors, discussion, and learning. Math class can be where education is no longer about rote-memorization and endless lines of theories and formulas. Find out more about Kenan’s work to transform education here: www.kenan-asia.org/21st-century-education/
By Titirat Suratin
Consultant, Education Team