When it comes to teaching math in the early grades, teacher-directed instruction increases student achievement more than the use of less traditional teaching practices such as games, music or student-centered activities, according to new research in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. These results are particularly true for struggling math students.
Using data on more than 3,600 1st-grade teachers and 13,000 students from 1,300 schools throughout the United States, researchers Paul L. Morgan and Steve Maczuga from Pennsylvania State University and George Farkas from the University of California at Irvine examined the effect on student achievement of four types of math instruction: teacher-directed instruction; student-centered lessons; instruction with the use of manipulatives/calculators; and lessons incorporating movement or music.
The data showed that teacher-centered math instruction consistently produced the most gains for both high achievers and low-performing students in the 1st grade after controlling for teacher experience, amount of time spent teaching, poverty and prior student performance in math and reading. Student-centered activities in which students worked on real-life situations and learned multiple methods for solving problems were associated with achievement gains only in higher-performing students. The use of manipulatives and lessons involving music or movement did not produce gains in math.
U.S. 1st-graders receive about 270 minutes of math instruction per week, or a little less than one hour per day, on average. Most students receive teacher-directed instruction about one third more of the time than student-centered lessons. Teachers use manipulatives infrequently, only about six to seven times per month on average. Movement or music activities are used even less often, although the researchers found they occurred most frequently in classes with high numbers of struggling students.
The researchers conclude that it is best to use teacher-centered instruction when working with students who are struggling with basic math concepts. Having students collaborate or talk through a problem or work with manipulatives can develop higher-order or critical-thinking skills after students have mastered the basics.