Traditional math instruction has long emphasized the “right answer” rather than the thinking that led to the answer. With the increasing demands of the standards, now there is growing interest in improving how students reason and think mathematically and how they apply that learning to everyday problem-solving.
However, the ability for children to express themselves in this way doesn’t just happen. The math journal, thus, has become an increasingly more popular instructional tool for helping young students organize, clarify, reflect on, and explain what they are learning.
This article examines key practices to model as elementary teachers introduce, implement, and maximize math journals in their classrooms.
Writing, a New Math “Basic”
Busy teachers may feel the time spent having students write in their math journals may be better spent teaching the “basics.” However, the traditional definition of the “basics” as arithmetic computation needs to be broadened to include reasoning and thinking about math problems. This is where math journals become such a powerful instructional tool.
When students write in math journals, they naturally must go through the process of reflecting, examining, expressing, and keeping track of their reasoning. A math journal then becomes the place where every student has the opportunity to verbalize their math learning to themselves, their teacher, and their classmates.
The Motivating Power of a Good Question
A math journal alone can’t improve student math thinking. Students must be motivated to write about what they learn, what they do in class, what they are unsure or confused by, and what is easy or hard for them. Educators play a critical role in moving the needle toward deeper thinking and reasoning and creating an environment where every student confidently records their math work and thinking. One way educators can set the writing wheels in motion is by asking questions.
A motivating question is open-ended, clear, and concise. It can be approached from multiple entry points, allowing all students to work at their individual level. It may have more than one solution. It requires thinking as opposed to simply repeating a math fact or reproducing a skill. It calls for students to justify their thinking and even evaluate the reasoning of their classmates.
To help students reflect, teachers may ask such questions as: When it comes to math, what do you find difficult? What is the most important thing you learned today? Might there be another way to solve this problem? Why? When children are having difficulty with an assignment, a simple prompt, such as “Tell me what you’re thinking” can allow teachers to nudge children toward writing.
A Natural Assessment Tool
By dating the journal entries, students can create a documented portfolio of their growth and progress. This becomes a great way for teachers to gain deeper insight into what students are learning and how they are thinking. A math journal is a window into their abilities, opinions, understanding, and misconceptions. When a misconception is noticed, a teacher can review the material in another lesson or pull together a small group of children with similar thinking.
Teachers should respond to what children write in their math journals. These comments, written in the math journal, should extend a child’s thinking and encourage them to re-visit their ideas. For example, a teacher may write: Your journal comment made me wonder… Can you add a picture to show how your thinking really works?… I am a little confused—please explain in more detail.
Writing plays an important role in mathematics and is just as important as numbers and computations in developing students’ thinking ability. That’s why incorporating journals into math is a good practice every educator and student can benefit from.
For a deeper look at the role of journals in mathematics, check out SDE’s webinar Math Journals: Your Students’ Ticket to Math Understanding (Gr. K–5) by educator and math expert Kristin Hilty.