Why Teach Using Centers?

Have you ever seen a fellow teacher running math centers and wondered how they could pull it off? I used to think that if I tried, chaos would erupt all over the room and it would end in disaster.

This past spring I was able to run some math centers in a first-grade classroom. It was a meaningful experience which led to some significant shifts in my understanding about centers and how they can be run effectively in a classroom.

One change involves the purpose behind the use of centers. I have come to understand they can serve two equally important objectives. The first purpose is to give students enough experiences so they can abstract, or generalize, relationships. These experiences are what allows their mathematical understanding to grow in sophistication. Therefore, the center is for the students’ learning. The second purpose is for the teacher to observe students’ mathematical behaviors. These behaviors serve as clues to help the teacher identify the thinking of the students. So the center is also for the teacher’s learning. These two purposes work together. Whole-class instruction is acceptable for student learning, but it offers fewer opportunities for the teacher to make individual observations of student behavior.

This understanding changed how I viewed the success or failure of any particular center experience. Previously, I might have judged the success of a center by how closely children were matching the behaviors I was showing them. With this new view, I deemed center a success when I could identify which students could access the presented situations and perform some meaningful (to them) operations.

I also learned to approach each center with the desire to see what math behaviors students would show me. The attitude I learned to bring was one of questioning with genuine curiosity, as if I were saying, “Let’s see what you do in this situation.” In short, the change in my understanding involved a transition from telling to asking.

Teaching interactions were in no way willy-nilly or lacking a goal or purpose. Knowing the research on students’ developmental and conceptual progressions altered the presentation to the students. The research also informed me as to what is most likely would happen next, and so it guided my prompts of students. Furthermore, my understanding of the research allowed me to be less rigid. I was able to dynamically change center activities if they were not allowing students to show me their mathematics, or if students were unable to make sense of a situation. Finally, the research helped me know what mathematical behaviors to look for and how to interpret my observations.

What are your thoughts? Have you taught math using centers? What did you find valuable, or challenging? One big issue many teachers wonder about is what the other students should be doing while they run a center, and how can it be managed? If you have ideas or success stories, please share.

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