I can tell you exactly when I stopped learning mathematics in any meaningful way: dividing fractions. Just the thought of it makes me squirm. After that, every math lesson was a battle for just enough retention to eke out a passing grade and never look back. (It wasn’t exactly innovative math education on my part.) I’ve told myself there was no real harm done since I pursued a writing profession requiring little more calculation than estimating word counts. However, now that my 10-year-old is fast approaching the “dead-end” point of my math knowledge, I don’t want him to inherit my minimalist approach due to my inability to assist with homework.
It hasn’t helped that what I did learn was in the era before Common Core standards, so the few processes I retained don’t always match up with the ones he’s connecting with. There are times we’re not even speaking the same language as we work through a problem, which tends to make me panic because, whether by teacher guidance or self-sabotage, I’d always believed there was only one path to Answer Land. The emphasis on mastering “the” single approach to each concept may have challenged my learning, but I’m discovering how math education has changed in the years since I was in school.
My son’s generation is learning with math curricula that prioritize conceptual understanding. The Illustrative Mathematics (IM) curriculum is a great example of this because it educates through a research-driven, problem-based instructional foundation. With IM, students devote much of their math class time to making sense of problems through trying different approaches, choosing appropriate tools, and evaluating their work. They also build comprehension by listening to and assessing their classmates’ reasoning when it differs.
“Trying different approaches?” Differing reasoning? I never knew you could do that with math! Not only does that curriculum design make it easier for students to use math concepts, it also creates opportunities for social connection through active discussion, and—my favorite part—aids family support by removing the old “one path” mentality.
Innovative Math Education
But what does learning that way actually look like? LearnZillion, an IM-certified partner, saw a way to take those benefits further while also better providing for distance and hybrid learning modalities: They developed Student Spotlight lessons, where IM lessons on the LearnZillion platform are anchored by series of short, pre-recorded videos in which a team of students shares their thinking. The video series, assignable directly to students, showcases authentic interactions between a team of real middle-school students engaging in meaningful discussions about math. These discussions model how different students grapple through various tasks, challenges, and milestones within the curriculum.
A typical Student Spotlight lesson shows three students working through the same problem independently, thinking out loud and showing their processes. Afterward, they come together, Zoom-style, to compare answers, approaches, and sticking points. It’s innovative math education that provides for all parties. Students watching are encouraged to consider: How did they approach the task? What was the same and different about their approaches? The lessons serve teachers by providing examples of small-group strategies and can be used to model concepts during instruction. When assigned for asynchronous learning, Spotlight videos become helpful peer checks.
The curriculum’s rigor, structure, and coherence are all still there—it’s designed for students to reach conceptual understanding, after all. The Spotlight lessons simply put peer faces to processes that will feel familiar or challenging to students. Plus, they give families like mine an additional school-to-home connection to support students in their learning and offer extra help when needed. My son and I can watch a Spotlight lesson and each see our approaches modeled, no panic needed if we differ. In fact, it may be all for the better if we do, as we could learn through comparison.
As the LearnZillion Student Spotlight materials say, “each student has their own way of connecting with math.” They could say “each student and grown-up,” as I may master dividing fractions, yet.