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NYC Helpline: How To: Teach Math
Teaching Mathematics with the Brain in Mind
Luzviminda “Luchie” B. Canlas 

Have you ever planned your mathematics lessons using research-based brain principles? Some of you are probably already applying lessons from the research to classroom settings without really being aware of it. What are these principles? Are they effective? How does knowing how the brain functions help inform the way we plan our math lessons?

Efficient educators incorporate brain research theories in planning effective lessons that meet the needs of all their learners. The brain is a very complex organ so in order for us to use it well, it is important that we know how it functions and know its essential parts.

Learning happens in the cerebral cortex. This is where reasoning, explaining, interpreting, planning, communicating, evaluating, synthesizing, and creating takes place. It is divided into four sections, namely sensory, integrative (reflective area), integrative (conceptualization area), and motor. More simply put, the cerebral cortex is where the learning chain takes place.

The brain starts with sensing, then makes relevant connections, and finally creates physical or mental movements. Recent brain research suggests that the brain can perform many functions at the same time. Learning is enhanced when the environment is rich and there is a variety of stimuli present. Learning is affected by the cognitive, physical, and emotional development of the individual.

The challenge for us lies in the purposeful and clever lesson planning where the teacher:

  1. initially activates students’ sensory cortex;
  2. then provides opportunities for them to reflect, ask questions, make conjectures, discover patterns/relationships, make links and connections between new information and what they already know;
  3. encourages them to transform their thoughts into writing, action, movement, and fun products.

This is not easy to do. However, if it’s done well, meaningful learning takes place and you have contributed to the development of well-rounded individuals who have sound minds and sound bodies.

How do we meet this challenge?

  • First, know your students well. It is vital that you know their interests, learning styles, readiness level, and needs. Build community in your classroom at the beginning of the school year. Help them develop positive attitudes towards each other. Understand the brain research principles and then use them as guides when planning lessons.

  • Since our students are constantly using their senses, we must include activities that allow them to touch, hear, see, smell, feel, and taste when teaching math. We must limit, if not totally eliminate lecturing math concepts. We need to design lessons where our students use their senses to learn mathematics. They need visuals, graphic organizers, interactive math word walls, thinking/concept maps, music, games, literature, manipulatives, art, and meaningful conversations and discussions to stimulate their thinking.

  • Create a safe environment where they can constantly wonder, ask questions, reflect, make predictions, explore, investigate, justify, communicate reason, explain, and evaluate without being judged. Avoid rote learning. Instead, generate activities that will showcase and celebrate their abilities to express auditory, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic styles.

  • Help them identify patterns at an early age. Provide multiple opportunities for them to make and see connections, similarities, and differences. Help them see how mathematics is important in their everyday lives and how it is all around us. Do daily routines on calendar, temperature, seasons, days, and months. Connect math to their daily activities such as shopping, eating, drinking, measuring, exercising, running, etc.

  • Instead of giving them the answer, ask them questions so that they discover the answers themselves. Engage them in “mental gymnastics” at all times. This will deepen their understanding and appreciation of mathematics.

  • Provide rich experiences where they convert their thoughts into action and movement. Inspire them to write, draw, make models, representations, list, graph, dance, sing, move, role play, act, cut, glue, paste, use technology, and play to bring mathematics to life. The products they produce will be concrete proofs of understanding.

  • It is essential to provide multiple and varied opportunities for learning. Students learn in a multitude of ways and styles so as educators, we must offer a menu of learning choices. Students need to know that they have a choice in their learning. For example, when giving homework, allow them to choose/do five out of ten items. You have control over the questions and number of items to do, but they have control over what to do.

  • Give as many open-ended tasks/questions as possible. Ask them to generate as many questions that will produce the answers you have provided. For example (a lesson on decimals): Here are the answers—3.5, 12.45, 102.34. What are the questions? I bet that you will be pleasantly surprised at the creativity of your students when it comes to problem posing.

  • Students need to feel safe and relaxed and yet alert and excited to face any challenge in the classroom. Teachers need to vary they way we engage them in class. Make them move. We can plan for them to work individually, as a pair, or as a team. Do a lot of “turn and talk” and make them share what their peers said. This practice will promote active listening and powerful speaking. Additionally, encourage reflection and metacognition (thinking about their thinking) to help your students get into the habit of consciously reviewing what they learned. Put their written responses/solutions/ answers on overhead transparencies (white out the names), then let them evaluate the work using a rubric they created. Collaboratively “looking” at a peer’s work is an excellent way to learn from each other and build community.

We have a very important role in shaping the brains of our students. It is critical that we purposely design math activities and lessons that require full brain use. This is a matter of urgency. By doing so, we will empower all our students to become effective mathematicians and thinkers. This is our ultimate goal.  Awareness, knowledge and effective application of brain research principles and aligning it to best instructional practices will help us achieve that goal.

If you have a question or comment about this article e-mail Luchie.


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