Incorporating learner centered instructional strategies can look different across the disciplines in education. Some work really well in a science or literacy classroom but will tank in a math classroom. When we design a lesson or unit, we are designing it for our learners and their needs; they should be at the forefront of every instructional decision we make, but sometimes we get lost in the minutia.
One of the best things about learner centered practices is that they aren’t difficult or a completely new concept. They are based on tried and true practices that have stood the test of time.
Hopefully after reading this, you’ll be able to walk away and implement at least one of these learner centered instructional strategies tomorrow in your math classroom!
Strategy #1: Blended Learning
Blended learning is a combination of direct and online instruction and practices while still leveraging the strengths of each. Some schools require a certain curriculum to be used in their math classrooms, while others are provided a variety of resources both physical and digital. Finding that sweet spot of what to use, what to lose, and what to tweak can be cumbersome.
Here are some of the digital resources that I have used for instructional purposes:
- Desmos Activities
- Khan Academy Videos
- Self-made video lessons (Loom is great for this.)
Some of the digital resources that I have used for assignments that provide instant feedback include:
When I want learners to show their thinking, that’s when I create my own practices on PDFs or a Google Slide for one rich task, use resources such as EngageNY (free), Kuta (pre-generated worksheets), and CK-12 practice.
In the example below, my learners were provided a direct instruction lesson; once we were done with the lesson, learners had the choice of how to practice the concept. You can see in the photo below, there are different levels to practice, but this also offers a digital way to practice on Buzzmath, or practice on a worksheet/PDF.
When designing a blended learning experience, you want to be intentional with your selections.
- Will this resource be a vehicle towards mastery for my learners?
- Do my learners have opportunities to write their thinking or will it push them to do the math in their head?
- Will this resource encourage independence, collaboration, or direct instruction?
- Are my learners ready to learn from a video lesson?
- Will I need to coach my learners on how to learn from a video lesson?
When you are able to answer these questions in a way that is best for your learners and will help them succeed, then you are on the right path for incorporating this learner centered instructional strategy.
Strategy #2: Math Warm-Ups
I like to start my math classes with a warm-up every day, whether it’s a Kahoot (math or non-math related), open-ended task, review problem from yesterday’s lesson, or an inquiry leading into that day’s lesson.
Open-ended tasks are a great way to engage any learner because it offers the low-floor and high-ceiling access points. Number webs are a great way to reach all learners because they determine how complex they want to get with their thinking.
The example below offers ways for learners to practice their rounding.
Another way I use this is for expressions: create at least 5 expressions that can simplify to 6x + 8.
Some kids will do repeated addition with like terms, while others will do distributive property and combine like terms with integer coefficients.
A warm-up like this will not discourage your learners from entering math that day; it will do the opposite! Some might need some hints or clues on how to start this if they’ve never completed an open-ended task before so don’t be afraid to model how to do it.
Another great warm-up idea is “Eliminate It.”
This is another open-ended warm-up because almost any response will work. Some learners are able to identify basic differences such as the option of ½ doesn’t fit because it’s the only one with a 1 in the fraction, while others may see 2/8 is the only one not simplified, or 2/8 is the only one that is less than or equal to 50%.
Others might say that ⅔ is the only fraction when converted to a decimal that repeats.
This warm-up offers all learners access to math conversation, hearing others’ perspectives, and making new meaning. When learners are engaged right away, you’ll have them hooked for the rest of class!
Strategy #3: Strategic Grouping
There are different purposes for grouping learners in a math classroom: to cultivate productive turn-and-talks, partner assignments or projects, or even just for small group instruction.
Grouping your learners intentionally can impact the effectiveness of your lesson, activity, and even your day! There are some moments when you facilitate a partnership in your classroom between two learners and it works out so well! If only it worked out like this every time, right?
Learners’ interests change from the beginning of the year to the end. Their friendships are evolving, as well as their personalities. Some learners are really great in geometry concepts but struggle with algebraic thinking. Knowing your learners’ strengths, areas of growth and level of communication can be so helpful when designing groups in class for activities.
Here are a few ways that I create groups: based on the results of pre-assessments.
Group M pre-assessed out of most of the 7th grade Inequalities Unit and finished it before the rest of the class, so they started a new unit in 8th grade of Square Root and Cube Root Equations.
Group A is a larger group of learners who all started the unit together with some prior knowledge but not enough to be exempt from the unit. Group T is a group of learners who had no prior knowledge to 7th grade Inequalities, so they are starting at the beginning of the unit.
I also create random groups or partnerships based on nothing to do with their knowledge of the content; sometimes it’s by their birthdays, the results of an informal Likert scale of desserts, or comfort level with teaching others.
These are sometimes the best pairings because it really pushes learners to communicate with others they’re not used to. When learners are pushed to hear the perspectives of others beyond their normal circle their communication levels, empathy, and flexibility will really start to grow! This is one of my favorite learner centered instructional strategies to use in my classroom.
Strategy #4: Reflection
Reflection is such a powerful tool and can be used at any time during the learner’s process. Below are some of the ways I have used reflection to stay learner centered.
Prior to taking an assessment, these are the sentence stems we give our learners to respond to. You can see that these questions make them think of their own strengths, the growth they made, strategies for the unit, how it can relate to the real world, and ultimately if they’re ready to take it.
I always read this for each learner prior to taking the assessment. If they’re not ready to take the assessment, that opens up the doors to a beautiful conversation about what’s standing in their way to feeling ready, and to determine their next steps to be prepared.
These sentence stems are used after our learners complete a summative assessment. I create an “assignment” in Google Classroom with directions to insert a picture of the rubric of the assessment, and to finish the sentence stems to reflect on their performance.
Reflection can also be done informally through voting 1-2-3 in the middle of instruction to determine understanding of the material.
Learners can also reflect on digital platforms such as Flipgrid or even Jamboard. The image below shows the reflection of my first hour learners and what is going well for them this year. This started really powerful conversations, and led to some new ideas and systems within our class! The changes I made to my math community were in response to my learners’ needs and wants.
Strategy #5: Flipped Classroom
A flipped classroom can be done in a variety of ways as a learner centered instructional strategy.
There are some items you need to consider prior to implementing a flipped classroom model:
- Your learners’ access to internet and technology in and outside of school
- The length of the video lessons
- Note-taking strategies
- The time in class to answer their questions
- Formative check-ins
- Motivation and engagement of the learners
Some learners prefer to learn face-to-face with their peers and teacher, while others are fine learning from a video lesson independently.
All of my learners have access to an iPad or a Chromebook, so I’m able to offer a flipped model to my learners. We also have time built in at school for learners that is similar to a study hall, time after school for kids who need to stay longer (thinking of WiFi access or lack thereof at home), and extended class periods.
With all of this time, our learners are able to watch the video lessons on their own time without impacting their growth and goals in the math classroom. They might accelerate learning with access to video lessons. They can rewind or go slower to gain a better understanding or maybe they have you for class at a time of day that isn’t best for their learning and a flipped classroom allows them an opportunity to remain successful.
When you offer these different instructional methods such as a flipped classroom, you are catering to the learner’s needs they may not even know they have.
Kids may not know how to take notes on their own, and this is something that I find value in coaching them how to do.
I almost always provide guided notes for my learners so they have a structured resource to fall back on when they need help and to save time writing when going through a lesson.
When I sent my first kid off to complete a unit by watching the pre-recorded video lessons, I was so excited! However, when the learner took their summative assessment, I wasn’t so excited after seeing his performance. We sat down and looked at his notes, and much to my naive surprise, he didn’t have any!
This was a valuable lesson for me that not all kids know how to take notes or hold themselves accountable to do so. So if you find value in this, don’t assume your learners know how to take notes!
Also, having check-ins along the way are a great way to see if the learner is making the progress they should be making.
These five learner centered instructional strategies have been anchors in my classroom for the last couple of years as I continue to build a learner centered environment.
Learner engagement and empowerment has increased dramatically as a result. If you have any tips you’d like to share or reflections after trying one of these learner centered instructional strategies out, please don’t hesitate to comment below!
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Bryn Grosskopf is a secondary math teacher in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Bryn earned her Masters of Education at Carroll University focusing on Personalized Learning and Teacher Leadership. She has worked at the Waukesha STEM Academy for eight years, developing a community of empowered learners and pushing her colleagues to do the same. Teacher leader, innovator, and a learner centered educator are just a few ways to describe how Bryn pushes the envelope on implementing personalized learning strategies and creating life-long learners.