It’s not easy to engage students in productive and meaningful discussions in math class while still using scaffolds and differentiation. While trying to create various entry points for students, teachers must also promote challenging tasks that provide students with the opportunity to engage in discourse with their classmates. This is where station teaching can help.
Our middle school has embarked on an effort to not only increase the amount of discourse taking place in our math classrooms, but to encourage students to engage in productive struggle while working through a challenging task. As a department head, I have helped to spearhead this movement by modeling and supporting teachers in the development of their station lessons.
The use of station teaching is certainly not a new practice. But within these station lessons, teachers can find ample opportunities to create discourse.
The first potential hurdle to overcome is a lack of student engagement. This can be due to disinterest in the topic, lack of confidence or lack of understanding of the material being presented. It is vital that teachers plan activities with a layered, scaffolded approach so that all students feel comfortable and driven to engage in what is happening.
That scaffolding can be accomplished in a variety of ways. I have found that providing students with a few minutes of independent think time prior to engaging in the group work at each station allows them to develop their own thoughts and strategies. It gives them an opportunity to share with their group without being “bulldozed” by the student who knows what to do as soon as the teacher says go.
Station activities themselves can be structured so that only select parts of bigger standards are being addressed at each one. These smaller fragments of more complex standards are easier for students to work with. By the end of working at each station, the students should be able to address a larger task related to the standard as a whole.
By way of example, let’s look at the 8th-grade state learning standard 8.EE.A.4, which states that students can perform operations with numbers expressed in scientific notation. Students can find it confusing to work with this standard as a whole, especially with various rules existing for addition and subtraction versus multiplication and division, as well as the exponent rules that exist in these problems. A station activity can help students break this standard down into smaller, more manageable tasks.
One station may require students to explore and determine the rules for adding and subtracting numbers in scientific notation. This may include having students analyze a variety of problems that already have a solution to determine what was done to achieve that answer. After discussing their own thoughts with their group, they may then try to develop their own rule for when you are asked to add or subtract numbers in scientific notation.
A similar activity can be done for multiplication at a different station, and division at yet another. This provides students the opportunity to work with a larger standard and discover for themselves the algorithms that exist within it.
Following the work at these stations, students may be brought back as a whole group to discuss the rules they developed and then work on a larger task that requires using all of the information gathered at these stations.
The last piece of this puzzle is engaging students in meaningful discourse. Our department has used several strategies this school year to improve our students’ mathematical discourse. One that has proven very successful we call “question chips.” Each group of students is given two chips. They represent the number of questions that group is allowed to ask the teacher. Once both chips have been used, the group must rely on one another to complete the task. This strategy has kept students engaged with one another for support without relying heavily on teacher assistance. It also forces students to participate in discussions around how important a question is. They may not want to waste a chip on a frivolous question they can work through themselves.
By both improving the quality of the discourse in our classrooms and having students engage in more meaningfully planned station activities, we have seen a significant jump in overall student engagement, performance and scores on classroom tasks. It does take some legwork, but the benefits more than justify that extra work.
Matthew Mason is an 8th-grade math teacher and a model teacher at MS 50 in Brooklyn.