Imagine a Math classroom where all students answer freely without fear of being wrong, and where they can easily relate Math to everyday use. Dr Joseph Yeo tells us how teachers can successfully plan for every student to be engaged during their lessons, regardless of the students’ abilities.
A subject of formulas and methods, one would think Math should be taught with mechanical precision. Every step is drilled into the student, no matter the individual’s learning needs.
But our classrooms are not made up of just one type of students. More often than not, it’s a room of mixed-ability learners. Because of this, Math teachers also face the challenge of understanding different student needs and how to address them.
Dr Joseph Yeo, who has been teaching since 1988, knows this from experience and learning theories.
“You need to pay special attention to diverse learners and differentiate the students according to their abilities. You need to understand that different students learn differently and learn at different pace.”
Creating a Low-anxiety Classroom
To support all your learners, Joseph suggests creating a low-anxiety classroom.
“Diverse learners not only have different learning styles but they will have different affective domains. Some students have Math anxiety or dislike Math. That’s where the Math teacher needs to create a low-anxiety environment to engage the students.”
To do this, he celebrates the “little successes”. It is not, however, just about rewarding students when they get the right answer.
“While we point out the students’ errors and we correct their misconceptions, we should not belittle the students,” Joseph says. “You praise the attempt and recognize the effort.”
In so doing, you are creating a space where students feel comfortable participating actively and are not afraid of being penalized for the wrong answer.
One Objective, Different Methods
Another way to create a low-anxiety classroom is to plan your lessons with a clear objective, and one that all learners can reach, rather than to “teach to the middle level of a class”.
– Joseph Yeo, Mathematics and Mathematics Education Academic Group
“Don’t plan without instructional objectives,” Joseph reminds us. “Although it is for diverse learners, the objective given must be specific. And it is important that it is made clear to the students at the outset. Your specific instructional objective must always be on your mind.”
Though there may be one specific instructional objective, the method of instruction and the types of resources used could be varied to cater to diverse learners. This objective guides the choice of teaching strategy.
For example, a mathematical concept could be represented in various forms. “It can be concrete, pictorial, or symbolic,” says Joseph. “Some students prefer to act out, some prefer to be engaged in activity, some prefer to hear it, and some prefer to draw.”
Classroom activities can also be varied to engage them. “The activity that I give them can be differentiated. Different students will do different activities in the class but at the end point they achieve the same instructional objective.”
Putting Math into Context
A simple way to reach out to every student is to put what they are learning into a familiar context. He uses everyday situations that students can easily relate to so that they can understand the mathematical concept better.
“I vary my activities. I give a context that is meaningful to them, something they have experienced in their lives,” explains Joseph.
For example, when teaching percentage to learners, one of the teaching tools we could use is dining receipts. Asking each student where he or she would like to eat at, Joseph produces a receipt corresponding to the student’s choice – much to the student’s delight.
At this point, the student is already involved in the activity. All that is left to do is to explain how the 7% GST and 10% service charge add to the bill.
Other than using familiar resources, Joseph gets his students to talk about how they experience mathematics in their lives.
“When teaching speed, teachers can’t make the students run around in the classroom, but they could get them to narrate the experiences that they have encountered in their lives. When they talk about it, it becomes meaningful to them.”
Teaching mathematics to diverse learners need not be procedural. It’s about purposefully planning for it to be meaningful. And because mathematics is all around us, we do not have to worry about running out of ideas.