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Academic Spotlight on Lower School Math: Building a Mathematical Understanding

The students in Claire Grillo’s Kindergarten class are sitting on the floor, next to piles of multi-colored blocks in a variety of shapes. There is lots of talking and giggling among the young students. You might think this is recess, but it’s actually math.

In 2013, Shipley’s Lower School adopted the Singaporean math curriculum, “Math in Focus.” The accelerated curriculum builds a conceptual understanding of math through a concrete-pictorial-abstract approach with an emphasis on visualization. Students learn to grasp mathematical concepts by literally grasping “mathematical manipulatives” (cubes, place value chips, fraction bars, and so forth) with their hands. 

Math class is interactive, teaching is student-centered, and learning goes deep. Students work together to build comprehension, then go on to work independently as they begin to show understanding of abstract and algorithmic concepts.

The approach focuses less on memorizing and more on developing a true understanding of math concepts, all while building students’ confidence to do math. Flexibility in thinking is encouraged by asking students to explain their process—why and how it works—in addition to providing numeric answers to problems. 

Assessment is multi-faceted. Student performance in assessments—both formative (ongoing through games, activities, teacher observation) and summative (end-of-unit “Show-Me-What-You-Knows”)—helps shape what happens next in math class.

“The materials in the program allow for differentiation, as does the structure we’ve created for implementing it,” says Head of Lower School Tim Lightman. “Reteach components” provide support for students who need it (usually done in small groups with a teacher) and “Enrichment and Thinking Cap Problems” provide extra challenge when necessary. Instead of moving ahead conceptually, advanced students dig deeper into the concepts they are learning by solving more complex problems, including brain teasers, word problems, or finding multiple ways to solve the same problem. 

The Lower School schedule allows for differentiation as well, allowing teachers at each grade level the flexibility to adjust the pacing of the program according to the needs of their students, moving into ability-based groupings across classrooms to tackle a specific skill or concept as needed.

Lower School Math Specialist Lucie McDermott says the “Math in Focus” program gives students the tools to complete complex problems at young ages—with students across all grades being able to solve algebraic problems. “We are helping children build their number sense and develop problem-solving skills from the earliest of ages. We want our students to be flexible thinkers, have mathematical conversations, and be problem solvers. Our students are excelling. They leave here in fifth grade ready for Middle School.”
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The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.