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Our littlest mathematicians share conceptual math smarts with a global audience

Classes at SA Bronx 1 and SA Hell’s Kitchen got a lot bigger (and a little taller) earlier this month, when forty-five educators from as far away as Louisiana, Tennessee, Arizona, and Israel saw Success Academy’s innovative math curriculum in action in our kindergarten and first grade classrooms.

As an elementary school math manager who helps develop and implement our curriculum, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to show off our approach to math to a group that included CEO’s, curriculum developers, and principals. All of these educators had launched conceptual math programs at their own schools, but wanted to learn how they could make them even more effective. They spent the morning watching our young mathematicians in action — and they were impressed by what they saw.

Too often, students develop an unnecessary fear of math that stems from teachers encouraging rote memorization and procedure over deep conceptual understanding and problem solving. Children understand math best when they understand why procedures or rules work, and discuss these reasons with their teachers and peers. At Success Academy, all math tasks are presented as realistic problems, since math is not just an academic subject, but a part of everyday life.

At Success Academy, all math tasks are presented as realistic problems, since math is not just an academic subject, but a part of everyday life.


Our visitors watched as a kindergarten scholar sat in his teacher’s chair and explained to the class how different number combinations could be put together to make the same total. The scholar made sure he had the attention of the class before he began and correctly fielded questions from the teacher as he described his strategy. In another class, when a fourth grade scholar got an answer wrong, the visitors were impressed by the teacher’s response — he didn’t move on to another student in order to find the right answer, but instead asked questions of the scholar and his classmates that helped the kids arrive at the correct conclusion.

After witnessing our math program in action, workshop attendees took a walk in the shoes of a Success Academy teacher — they studied student work to assess the level of kids’ understanding, and participated in a unit launch, where teachers plan their approach to upcoming lessons.

In the unit launch, I asked the attendees to complete one of the first grade–level problems:  There is a double-decker bus with 10 seats on each level. If there are 13 people total on the bus, what are the different ways they could be seated? How many on the top and on the bottom?

Immediately, participants started listing combinations such as 13 and zero, 12 and one, or 11 and two — proud of their systematic approach. I grabbed a “math rack,” one of the tools our kids often use, and asked the participants to model their strategy.

I could practically see the light bulbs go on above their heads! They realized that they’d assigned more than 10 people to a space with only 10 seats, forcing the fictitious passengers to stand instead of getting a seat! They had totally disregarded the context of the story and jumped straight into procedures. This was the perfect example of why we believe deeply in our model of math education: We want scholars to understand that math exists within a real-life context (there were only ten seats on each level of the bus) — and there’s more to solving problems than simply applying a procedure.

This also demonstrated how important it is for teachers to solve problems themselves, before  scholars tackle them. This ensures teachers anticipate the types of mistakes students might make and can proactively plan to address these issues.

Our team received positive feedback from the workshop. “Thank you for your transparency,” wrote one participant. “Definitely revitalized my love for math and excited to implement these takeaways in the future,” said another. Many participants said they couldn’t wait to try out what they learned at their own schools. Sharing our best practices with other school networks is at the heart of Success Academy. We want to ensure that as many students as possible benefit from our model — even when our teachers aren’t the ones delivering the instruction.


Written by Sarah Brickley November 29, 2016

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