Perspectives on Common Core: Student-Centered Math

Ditching paper and pencils can lead to great opportunities for collaborative learning and yes, even fun.

By Nicole Schon

group of students raising their hands

The classroom floor is alive, or at least that's how it seems. Everywhere bodies flop down, squirm around, and then leap up again. Some would see chaos—the teacher sees learning.

To her right, Michael lies on the floor, hands clapped against his sides. Juan and Victoria quickly lie down near him, bodies rigidly straight. Standing over them, Annie cocks her head to the side, nudges Juan to scoot his head closer to Michael's feet, and then crunches up her brow in thought. A few seconds later, she instructs Victoria to make her body longer by extending her arms. The two boys adjust their bodies based on this move. Satisfied, Annie snaps a photo with the tablet at her desk and shouts, "Obtuse triangle!" This is math in room 13.

The students have been tasked with demonstrating each of the five triangles learned in the recent geometry unit. The only catch is, they have to use their bodies and every triangle has to involve three people. Teams of four work together, with a new person taking over the role of director/photographer each time.

Shifting Toward the Common Core

The teacher, seeking ways to adopt the more student-centered learning that her school has decided to emphasize as part of the shift toward Common Core math standards, decided to discard the traditional paper quiz at the end of this week, and instead created this performance task. This way she is able to achieve more than just the content standard of identifying triangle types. Group work and creative thinking allow for collaboration and other practice standards to be met.

Annie's group now huddles around the tablet where Michael has opened up the picture in Skitch. They have to explain, in writing, what makes this an obtuse triangle. As they are discussing what to write, the teacher leans in and comments, "Annie, I noticed you made Victoria put her hands up over her head a moment ago. Why did you ask her to do that?" The teacher listens to the response, and states, "That was a clever way to solve the problem you were having. Would you share what you did with the class when we have our class debrief?"

Students Lead the Learning 

The teacher has found that identifying opportunities like this for students to be the teacher empowers them, as they realize that their thinking counts and is valid. It builds a culture of respect which helps students to see each other as resources. The teacher keeps a checklist of students who have had a chance to share their thinking, and consciously seeks to make sure each child has a chance to share with the whole class at least once a week.

Scenarios like this played out in classrooms across America long before the Common Core was introduced, particularly for teachers aware of NCTM's standards. Published originally in 1989, these standards form the basis of the Common Core's math practice standards. Now, rather than being an optional set of pedagogical choices, the math practice standards are a parallel requirement to the content standards.

Finished with their five triangle pictures, the children settle back into their seats, and face the front of the room, where the normal routine of explaining their work and thinking will commence. In this case, each team takes turns displaying their tablet photos on the Apple TV. As usually happens, the kids lead the conversation. Other kids raise their hands to ask clarifying questions or to suggest alternate ways of how they solved solutions, and the teacher chimes in to encourage learners to elaborate on their thinking, or to ask them to share a particular way they solved a problem. This is math in Room 13, student-centered, standards-driven, and fun.

Other Resources to Enliven to Common Core Math Instruction:


Use this as a place for pupils  to store digital artifacts of all the math learning they have accomplished throughout the year. It also makes a great place to store PDFs, videos, and other resources that might serve as handy references or refreshers for your class. Available as an app and also a website.

Khan Academy

Whether you're working toward a flipped classroom or seeking a challenging opportunity for youngsters to expand their learning, Khan Academy is a fantastic math resource. While the learning kids receive is fantastic, it gets even better with the ability to see each individual's progress through quiz results and tracking of which videos have been viewed.

Idea Sketch

Looking for a digital way for learners to show their thinking? Idea Sketch is an app that may be a solution. Math concepts and procedures can be charted out, made into flow charts, or organized to show how a problem was solved.