Setting Up High-Impact Tasks in Elementary School Math Centers

Allowing students to select math centers based on interest instead of skill level provides opportunities for them all to grow.

May 24, 2024
FG Trade / iStock

In our work as math coaches and consultants, we are often asked to help teachers structure small group practice time. Teachers who are required to implement “what I need” (WIN) groups or small group math time have questions about how to put it into practice so that the wide range of students’ needs are being met. We invite you to consider how prioritizing equity-based principles and providing high-impact tasks can offer a path to differentiating instruction, deepening skills and concepts, and strengthening problem-solving. 

differentiation in math centers

Elementary teachers are often encouraged to use math workshop (also called math center time or math rotations) to differentiate. In this model, teachers create structures for small groups of students to move from one task to another in timed rotations to complete activities that the teacher has assigned and prepared for them. In this model, there is almost always a “teacher table,” where the teacher works closely with small groups of students on “what they need.” 

This model can send unintended messages to students about what it means to be a successful, competent learner of mathematics. It can result in a math classroom that is hierarchical and leveled rather than one that supports students with multi-abilities. Students may begin at early ages to feel the impact of being identified and tracked. So what is the alternative?

designing better Tasks for math centers

Math centers offer ideal opportunities to go deep with the mathematics. The choice of tasks and the ways that teachers interact with students during the workshop impact essential equity standards. We prioritize activities or games with a low floor and high ceiling and that have a high cognitive demand with multiple solution strategies. These games and activities encourage students to make conjectures, to reason through multiple solutions, and to practice important mathematical and problem-solving skills

One example we often begin with is counting collections. The task focuses on significant mathematics, and yet the directions are uncomplicated. Students choose a collection of items and then figure out how many items are in the collection. The complexity and rigor come from students having to figure out how to count and then how to represent their count. Students develop essential skills such as counting, sorting, grouping, and problem-solving.  

Role of the teacher: Instead of having a teacher be stationary at a table where they supervise and lead students through a task, they move around the classroom listening to the students as they engage in the activities. They press on ideas, nudge and notice how students respond and interact. They ask probing questions to help surface mathematical ideas, and they take notes on what they observe and how students respond. Then they use their observations to assess student understanding and inform planning.

Teachers can still gather a small group of students together to bring forward some aspect of their work. In the example of counting collections, we sometimes bring together students to practice ideas related to one-to-one correspondence or extend skills related to number sense.

Grouping Students for centers

We plan tasks for math centers that allow us to leverage multiple competencies among learners and challenge spaces of marginality. In small groups or partnerships, students with different strengths learn with and from each other as they collaborate on activities. We see the variation in student abilities within a group as benefiting all group members, as it allows for greater richness of ideas and knowledge mobility. Students with varying skills and solution strategies work side-by-side using each other as equal thought partners who are able to engage in the mathematics as sense-makers. 

Many math games, like the classic “compare” games, offer the kind of richness that makes them well-suited as tasks that leverage the multiple competencies of our students during math workshop. For instance, when they play “multiplication compare,” the game directions are routine: Draw the number of cards needed, figure out the product, and compare it to the product of your partner’s hand. We use sentence starters to support partner talk for all learners and develop protocols for partner decision-making.

The success of multi-ability groups depends on how the teacher establishes an equitable math learning community and how that community is nurtured and maintained throughout the year. We pair students randomly in order to disrupt any narrative that only certain kinds of learners are capable of engaging in deep mathematics. Random groupings position all learners as competent and capable.

Role of the teacher: Following a class period of math rotations, we debrief with our students, not only about the mathematical content they have been engaged in, but also about aspects of their group work and interactions. We help students acknowledge and describe how a partner’s solution offered something new and productive to consider.  

Affirming Learners’ Math Identities

Because we see math centers as opportunities to position all students as competent, we prioritize student agency and expand access for all. We select games and activities that support students’ independence, interdependence, and decision-making. Choice is an essential part of the math workshop we are advocating for. When we reposition our students as competent independent learners and give them opportunities to make mathematical decisions, students will rise to the challenge in ways that surprise and excite their teachers as they develop more positive identities as math learners.

Role of the teacher: As we interact with students during math workshop, we press on important mathematical ideas and help shape how students view mathematics and how they view their relationship to mathematics. For example, during “counting collections,” we might say, “You have shown one way to count this quantity. Is there another way you and your partner could count this collection and represent it so that other people would know easily how many items there are? Mathematicians often make several attempts at representing their ideas in order to communicate them clearly to others. See what you might come up with for a second attempt.”

Or, after observing students at a table playing “multiplication compare,” we might say, “I noticed that your group had a few ways of figuring out who had the greater product. When we meet at the end of workshop time, it would be helpful for your classmates to hear your ideas. Why don’t you talk together now about how you might present your ideas to the whole group?”

What’s Next?

We believe it’s time to reconsider some of the assumptions and expectations that educators typically bring to the design and implementation of math workshop time. We suggest prioritizing the development of positive math identities for all students by providing opportunities for access, agency, collaboration, and independence by giving them choice and voice.

We have found that when we rethink the role of the teacher, the kinds of mathematically rich tasks we offer, and the way in which we group students, math workshop can become integral to the creation of equitable math classrooms and be a place for students to develop strong habits of mind alongside math competencies.

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  • Math
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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