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  • Writer's pictureLara

How to Get Students to Engage in Math Class: Problem Solving and Center Time!

Updated: Jan 13

Ask Questions

If you ask a student in the moment what is going on, they will often say “I don’t know” or “It’s too hard.” Asking in the moment is not always the best way to get results.

If they give one of the above answers, see if you can tweak your entry point to make it seem more accessible, or preview the type of task with your students before you present it to build their confidence with the task. Sometimes they need to see that they can do a similar task even when we know they can.

Ask them what they are interested in, if there is a show or toy they like, and if there are hobbies they enjoy and make a note for later. Share questions at morning meeting are a great time to get the kind of information from kids quickly and helps build a sense of community between students with common interests. 

Give Them A Job

Is there something they can be in charge of during math time whether it be during center time or problem-solving time that is inconspicuous but helps with buy-in? Giving them something they can take ownership of can be very helpful. I’ve seen other teachers have students be the note taker for strategies around the room, making sure everyone has the supplies they need and more!

Theme It Out!

Remember when I suggested to make note of their interests? This is where you use it! If they love Pokemon, make the task about Pokemon. If they are into trains, see if you can incorporate some type of mathematical principle that trains use into your next task! You can even let them choose! Ask them what they would like the next task to be about and if it works out, you may ask them for another suggestion at another time. You make like this Gingerbread Man Task or this Escaping Spiders Task.

Get Into Character!

I love games, mysteries, escape rooms, puzzles, all of that!  There has been extensive research to show that I am not alone in that! Students' interest and connection to the material is piqued when utilizing those types of resources, so give one a try! A great resource to learn more about that is Zaretta Hammonds, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain if you’d like to learn more about that!

Get Social!

Kids love to talk! Lean into that and let them work with others! One of the unexpected things I noticed when I did Building Thinking Classrooms for the whole year was that the students wanted to work together all the time, even when I didn't intend it like during certain center activities, and guess what, I let them! We talked about expectations that we still needed to be working but if that is what they felt would help them learn best then go for it! 

Revisit Non-Curricular Tasks

If you see students' interest waning, this may be a good time to revisit non-curricular tasks both in problem-solving and during centers. Give them a STEAM challenge where they are building and creating! Lean into puzzles and riddles, instead of equations and algorithms the give your students a boost in engagement and excitement around math! 

Mistakes Help Us Grow

I don't know if I would recommend this but I accidentally chose a task that was way too hard for the kids. It was called Nine Colors. The groups were given 27 cubes, 3 of each color and they had to build a big cube and each face had to have each color one time. Looking it up now I have no idea how I ended up on this task I usually filtered but age group. Since it was a building task they all stuck with it for the whole class period and it gave us as a class a chance to talk about not always solving the problem and that that is okay. What is more important is our mindset and we keep trying, and the next problem we get, we won't let this stop us from trying a new problem next time.

PS They asked if I could put the cubes in a center so they could keep trying so they were obviously not too discouraged!

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