Conceptual Understanding, the Instructional Shifts

Instructional Shifts

As teachers implement shifts in instruction, what students do in the classroom looks different, how students practice looks different, student homework looks different. It is important to note that change takes time, and teachers must be supported in understanding the changes and how to implement them in their classrooms.

A shift to a focus on manipulatives is not just about using the manipulatives but how to support students in connecting what they are learning symbolically (the value of the digits, or what 5 +3 means) with their understanding. Manipulating color counters is tied to drawing the figure in a tens frame or on a number line, and then very intentionally connected to the symbolic representation. This combination provides a greater foundation for number sense and place value as students progress through their learning. This focus on conceptual understanding means teachers do not introduce the standard approaches until students are ready to understand what they are doing and what the process means.

Practice looks different as well. Rather than working on a worksheet with twenty problems on it, students are likely to play a game. The practice is not just about answer finding but about strategy use. This kind of approach is more engaging for students and allows them to think about how they solve a problem rather than how many problems they got right or wrong.

Homework looks different too. There are fewer problems, and as already mentioned the focus has is not just on finding the answer, but understanding the problem. Students may be asked to show how they could find the answer multiple different ways, which may be counter-intuitive to some parents (if they can find the answer, why do they need to do it another way?). Being able to flexibly look at a problem helps students choose the strategy that best fits a problem rather than always applying the same approach regardless of the characteristics of a problem. This kind of flexibility promotes deeper learning and helps to make students better problem solvers when they get older.

If we continue to just be focused on answer finding and standard algorithms, students miss the successes that build on developing a deeper conceptual understanding from the beginning.


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