Boy scratching his head at a difficult math problem on a chalkboard

Credit: Getty Images

Two themes frequently promoted here for 21st century classrooms are, one, putting the problem first, and two, challenging and supporting students to learn via trial and error, though a structured and supportive learning process.   A recent posting to the consistently valuable edutopia offers remarkable new evidence supporting these methods.

Entitled Kids Master Mathematics When they are Challenged but Supported, author Bernice Yeung explains the research from New Jersey, and that allowing students to struggle with challenging math problems can lead to dramatically improved achievement and test scores “allowing students to struggle with challenging math problems can lead to dramatically improved achievement and test scores.”

This mathematics instruction is called the Rutgers Method, and has had astounding results, with fourth graders seeing math scores rising from 45 to 79% on standardized tests.   The method is described as follows:

[A teacher] assigned rich word problems, then gave students a few minutes to work individually in a way that emphasized their strengths.  “If you are good at computations and you want to do it that way, you can,” says Joseph-Charles, now a math coach in the school district. “If you are a visual learner and you want to draw, you can. Or if you want to use manipulatives, you can. You hear this rhetoric about there being this and that type of learner, but no one really gives students the opportunity to learn in different ways in the math classroom.”

Using the Rutgers method of group learning, Joseph-Charles’s students organized themselves into groups so that each student could explain how she arrived at an answer. The other students in the group gave constructive criticism about the pros and cons of each approach. Each group then decided which method was best and presented it to the class.

This is terrific stuff.   Start with a rich, challenging problem.  Let the kids work on it, give them the time to try different techniques, have them work in groups, and have them explain to each other their approach in problem-solving.   All the while, support, support, support.  And learning thrives.   This research comes from and is about math instruction, but I think it should be widely applicable.

More information, and training in this technique, is available at MathNext.