George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

4 Elementary Teaching Strategies That Enhance High School Math

Strategies like anchor charts aren’t just for elementary school—they can help high school students engage in complex mathematical thinking.

September 20, 2022
High school students working together in math class
PhotoAlto / Alamy Stock Photo

I spent 18 years as a high school mathematics teacher, but it wasn’t until I became the K–12 director of mathematics at my school that I was able to truly see many wonderful activities happening in the elementary math lessons that could add so much value to a secondary math classroom. Often, in the secondary classroom, we get overly focused on content and don’t appreciate the value of communicating to all of the different learners in the classroom.

Robert Fulghum famously wrote, “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.” In this case, the strategies that are so successful at teaching math in early elementary can pay dividends in higher-level math as well. We spend a lot of time vertically aligning content, but we could vertically align teaching strategies as well. Below are some of my takeaways after working with elementary teachers on what could help enhance learning and engagement for the secondary student.

4 Strategies That Work

1. Math talks to start every lesson: In elementary classrooms, we begin our math workshops with math talks to help engage student minds and begin to focus on the mathematics lesson. The power of the math talk is essential to make students feel welcome in the math classroom, help focus their brain to logical thinking, and build collaboration. A math talk is such a powerful teaching tool, where students continue to build mathematical thinking and discourse around any topic that continues to help build foundational understandings in a unit, while listening to and critiquing the reasoning of others.

Often the teacher will lead off with a question like “What do you notice?” and allow conversation about strategies and new situations to arise naturally from student answers and discourse. Starting class with a thinking problem, fluency practice, or other brain teaser or logical thinking problem that all students can engage in as well helps build student confidence at the start of each class.

Many secondary classrooms are crowded; therefore, it may be more challenging to get all students involved in the math talk. The best suggestion for this is yet another elementary classroom strategy, the popular turn and talk. When engaging students in the talk, pose the question and have students talk with a partner or small group about their different answers and approaches. Then, encourage them to share one of their partner’s ideas with the class. I have seen this be very effective in the classroom and help build community and confidence for all students.

Some great resources that I have found to help secondary classroom students with their math talks are Which One Doesn’t Belong and Jo Boaler’s “data talks.” All students can engage in these math discussions, which in turn helps their confidence and motivation to continue to engage in class as well. Fluency practice too is always a plus!

2. Small group instruction: This is a strategy that I wish I had used more of as a high school teacher. Small group instruction is a powerful way to not only differentiate a lesson but also provide extra scaffolding to students who might be struggling with a specific topic. For example, when teaching factoring, you might have some students who are struggling with the concept of factoring with an a value of 1, while others are ready to move on.

Based on data, a teacher can work directly with a small group of students struggling with the basics of factoring, while allowing others to work collaboratively on different trinomials with an a value greater than 1. Teachers can use exit slips, quick checks, observation checklists, and other tasks to help assess student understanding of a specific skill and to identify areas for additional targeted instruction.

Placing students into small groups once a week based off of this data allows the teacher to meet students at their level. Teachers can perform a mini-lesson for different groups, scaffolding the lesson appropriately and accelerating learning. Small group instruction fills in gaps, accelerates learning, and provides high-level Tier 1 instruction in the secondary classroom. This is an opportunity to repurpose the role of tiered intervention in the secondary setting as well.

3. Anchor charts: We often expect our students to come into the secondary setting as expert note takers. Even though they often copy everything that was on the board, students sometimes forget to refer to the important content that they recorded, or it gets lost in a sea of notes. Important information that students are expected to hold on to and transfer could be better represented around the room on anchor charts. Noting important ways to think and solve problems, theorems, or proofs can help students transfer thinking to new situations and remember their basics. This is a great way to decorate the walls of a secondary classroom!

4. Numberless problems: After attending a few of Graham Fletcher’s professional development sessions on metacognition, I recognized the power of his message even for the secondary classroom. When you show students a problem, a picture, or an error-analysis problem, ask them, “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” Too often we don’t allow students in the secondary classroom to notice and wonder about the beautiful math around them.

One way to start math class, or to have a break in a longer block, is to show a picture that has math in it (math is everywhere) and ask students to notice and wonder. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ Notice and Wonder program features images that can spark so many different math conversations, leading students to see math all around them! Ask students what questions they have about the picture, mathematically, or even just what they are wondering. All of this helps students become problem solvers, a skill that we are constantly growing and developing, even into our adult lives.

So, even if we didn’t learn everything we need to know in kindergarten, we can still learn from the past. The teaching strategies used by kindergarten teachers can inspire ways to engage our students in the beauty of mathematics at every age.

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  • 9-12 High School

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