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The Science of Math: Embracing Research-Based Teaching Strategies

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Updated on
Modified on June 5, 2024

The science of math is a growing movement that focuses on using objective evidence from research to inform educational decisions, policies, and practices related to mathematics instruction. This approach recognizes math proficiency is a blend of concepts, procedures, strategies, reasoning, and disposition, and aims to ensure all students have equitable access to high-quality math instruction.

Math proficiency encompasses five key components: Understanding concepts, using procedures flexibly and accurately, formulating and solving problems, reflecting and justifying, and seeing math as sensible and worthwhile. To help students achieve math proficiency, teachers should:

  • Embrace a focused, coherent progression of learning
  • Develop conceptual understanding and procedural fluency simultaneously
  • Use formative assessments regularly
  • Employ multiple approaches to meet students' needs

For students experiencing math difficulties, research suggests teachers should use explicit instruction, teach clear and concise math language, use concrete and virtual representations, incorporate number lines for learning concepts and procedures, provide deliberate instruction for solving word problems, and use timed activities to build math fluency.

A common misconception among educators is students should master conceptual understanding before being exposed to procedural instruction. However, research shows conceptual and procedural knowledge support each other and should be taught together to strengthen both over time.

The Math Wars: Debates and Challenges

Despite the growing body of research supporting the science of math, debates continue about the best ways to teach math. Some experts argue that the science of math is not as clear as the science of reading and there is still much to learn about effective math instruction. Others, like Sarah Powell from the University of Texas at Austin, believe teaching math properly in the early grades could drastically reduce the number of children struggling with the subject.

One point of contention is the role of direct instruction versus inquiry-based learning. Proponents of the science of math argue students learn best when new topics begin with direct explanations from teachers who teach procedures and formulas alongside concepts, followed by practice and mastery. However, some established math leaders, like Jo Boaler, express concern about this approach.

Incorporating Research-Based Strategies Into Math Instruction

As technology advances, there are opportunities to incorporate research-based strategies like Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI) into math instruction. CGI emphasizes adaptive learning enviro

nments and real-world problem-solving to personalize student learning and bridge the gap between theory and practical applications. Researchers Carpenter and Franke have relied on teachers’ observations about the success of CGI methods “as a motivator for changing practices.”

Despite the progress made in understanding effective math instruction, challenges remain. The U.S. trails other high-income countries in math performance, and many students graduate from high school with deficits in basic math skills. Additionally, math research hasn't received as much funding or attention as reading research, particularly beyond the elementary level.

The science of math is not a widespread concept. “I don’t think the movement has caught on yet,” said Matthew Burns, professor of special education at the University of Florida and co-creator of the Science of Math website. “I think it’s an idea.” Experts do seem to agree on the importance of systematic and explicit math instruction that builds on older concepts while introducing new ones in small chunks. By embracing research-based strategies and investing in further research, educators can work toward ensuring all students have the opportunity to develop strong math proficiency and succeed in their academic and professional lives.

Explore math solutions offered by Voyager Sopris Learning®. From basic math skills to accelerating students, our research-based K–12 math intervention programs equip teachers and students for academic success.

To read more about mathematics in education, take a look at the topics below from EDVIEW360, the thought leadership platform from Voyager Sopris Learning. EDVIEW360 was built for educational leaders and teachers, and brings together the industry’s most respected minds and renowned curriculum authors in their fields with highly relevant, top-of-mind topics.