Making Math Lessons Authentic and Hands-On

Each unit in 4th grade math, my teaching partner and I are always looking for a way to make the math lesson meaningful and hands-on to truly take their learning to the next level. Too often a math lesson goes a little something like this:

  • teacher teaches lesson to whole group
  • students go back to seats and practice the concept
  • students go home and work on homework worksheets to prove mastery
  • repeat
  • review for test
  • tes

The problem with this? Student masters that concept for that period of time, learn it for the test, then poof! It leaves their mind until the next school year.

As a math teacher, I know the importance of giving our students time to practice a concept, inquire, grow, and make mistakes. I also know the importance of ensuring that the lesson is connected to real-world learning. The importance of showing our kids that the concept they are learning today, truly is used in the real-world. And of course, the importance of making that lesson fun. 
Last unit the students were exploring multiplication and division arrays and we brainstormed different ways to get our students to create something that would put these skills to work. (And, in all honesty, we needed something to put in the hallway. I know you elementary teachers feel me on this one!) We had also been discussing factors and multiples – a challenging concept for 4th graders to truly master. Our brainstorm went a little something like this:
  • have students work in partners to research skyscrapers in our world
  • use those skyscraper heights to compare and contrast to one another (For example, students would explain that Skyscraper X is 3 times the height of Skyscraper Y.) 
We quickly realized that this wasn’t necessarily going to work for our objectives and altered our thinking:
  • students would work in partners to create a skyscraper and name their building
  • students would decide how many windows that skyscraper would have and write an array to match the number of windows (For example, 5 X 7 = 35 windows)
  • students would then double, triple, quadruple and half that number of windows to practice multiplication and division
  • students would choose one of their new arrays and create a new building with that many windows
  • students would write a sentence comparing their two buildings and window arrays
  • students used black construction paper to create buildings
  • students used the Canva App to create their poster to match their building which included the 2 arrays, a picture of their buildings that they created, and a sentence comparing the two buildings

Initially, we intended for this project to take us 2 days in class to complete. We must’ve been dreaming! It took closer to 5 and part of the 6th day to truly complete the project. At first, we reflected and thought, “Man, that was a fun project but it sure set us back in our lesson planning a few days!” The kids collaborated, inquired, problem-solved, used technology to show their thinking, compared, analyzed, led… because of this one project. Yes, it took more time than we anticipated. Yes, it was a lot of work. But, it was well worth it. We ultimately reflected and discussed the fact that our thinking as teachers must change to allow for more hands-on, authentic moments in our classroom. We have to be willing to let some things go. Why does every unit have to be followed by an exam? Couldn’t the project count as the exam? Could we flip our lessons so that they students are still hearing us teach at night by using recordings? 
One of my favorite things that came out of this project was the fact that some of our students truly took the learning and connections above and beyond what I expected. I was anticipating most students to complete projects similar to the ones pictured above. And, in fact, most did look similar to the ones pictured above. But, some students took the liberty to go out on a limb and connect their learning to a lesson we had previously taught. Some students chose not to compare and contrast the window arrays by simply saying, “Building 1 has 3 times the number of windows as Building 2.” Instead, they come up with this:
Never was I expecting our students to use factors and multiples to compare their window arrays, but they did! They used what we had taught them previously to create their comparison. What?! 
It’s projects like these that truly make me reflect on my goals as a math teacher. Am I trying to get my students to know how to take tests? To complete problems on a worksheet? To learn in the manner that many math classrooms run? Or, am I trying to get them to use soft skills alongside problem-solving, hands-on and authentic learning? We must allow for room in education for our students to take learning into their own hands all while being okay with our lesson plans changing. 

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