Essential Solutions 2-MIN. READ

Fostering Joy in Learning: Embracing Exploration and Conversation in the Math Classroom

By: Naneka Brathwaite 08/22/2023
Learn how encouraging exploration in the math classroom unveils discoveries and helps students succeed.
Students smile while looking at an assignment.

Pharrell Williams says: “Schools should be spaces of joyful manifestations, where curriculum, community, and consciousness uncover what makes each student special.” But that hasn’t always been the case.

In my recent travels across the country, I’ve asked scores of educators to use three words to describe their dream math classroom. Overwhelmingly, they were "fun," "engaging," and "loud"! When I asked if they had experienced these things as a student, the answer was a resounding “no!” And it wasn’t exactly my experience either. The traditional approach to math instruction often neglects the importance of fostering joy and student engagement in the classroom.

Mirroring Our Own Math Class Experience

For much of my time as a student, math class was a rote experience. My teacher would lead us through examples, then we’d engage with “guided practice” while my teacher monitored and corrected the students who were on the “wrong path.” And let’s not forget about “independent practice.” If there was any time left, maybe we’d get a word problem to solve. There was hardly any discussion between teacher and students, and I do not recall ever being told to “turn and talk” to my shoulder partner.

I excelled as a math student, but I wouldn’t say I enjoyed my classes. When I became a teacher, I taught math the way it was taught to me. At the time, the workshop model was all the craze—"I do, we do, you do" became my class’s way of life for my first few years in the classroom. While I offered my students opportunities to discuss their work, I don’t believe I utilized best practices to do it well.

If students aren’t encouraged to try different strategies, they may not have much to say. Couple that with not modeling how students should have these discussions and just expecting them to be full of math conversation is unrealistic.

Moving from Rote Learning to Cooperative Learning

When I was introduced to cooperative learning, or at least the version of it I understood, I thought simply having students sit together in groups was enough. As I learned more about research-based practices in classroom instruction, things started to make more sense. I’d often tell my students, “When you know better, you do better.” By creating a safe and inclusive environment that encourages students to explore different strategies and engage in meaningful conversations about their work and tapping into their diverse learning needs, you can transform your math classroom into a place of excitement and discovery! Here are a few ideas for doing that.

How to Foster Joy in the Math Classroom


  1. Give Students Choices by Allowing Them to Explore Different Strategies

    Math is not a one-size-fits-all subject. As my mother always says, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” Offering students opportunities to solve problems using various approaches, not just a standard algorithm, helps them develop critical thinking skills and enhances their ability to think about numbers more flexibly. For example, helping students discover how to make a 10 in kindergarten and arrays in second grade goes a long way when they get to fourth grade and have to multiply multi-digit numbers. When students are given the freedom to explore, they become active participants in their own learning.

  2. Create a Safe and Inclusive Learning Environment while Facilitating Meaningful Conversations about Student Work

    Cultivating a growth mindset in the classroom is critical for creating a safe and inclusive learning environment. Mistakes are a necessary part of learning, so set ground rules early on to create a culture of trust so your students aren’t afraid to voice their opinions and don’t feel ashamed when they make an error. Remind them to focus on how they arrived at the answer—it’s the journey that matters, not so much the destination. And be sure to model this behavior when you make mistakes yourself. When students are encouraged to try different strategies and discuss their approaches with each other, they gain confidence in their thinking and find joy in their mathematical explorations.

  3. Regularly Assess Students’ Progress and Reflect on Their Individual Learning Needs

    Formative assessments can provide valuable and objective data on each of your students. Like all of us, positive reinforcement goes a long way. So, take time to have data chats and call out progress one on one with your students. This helps students feel seen and lets them know where they stand.

Small group instruction with students at similar levels can help foster teamwork and encourage participation. Student-led activities in math centers and personalized learning opportunities can also help differentiate instruction and allow students to focus on their specific areas of need.

By rethinking how you were taught math and reestablishing new, innovative approaches to teaching foundational mathematical principles, you can foster a sense of joy in your classroom.

Want more from Naneka? Check out this episode of the Extraordinary Educators™ Podcast.