Math Centers?…it just makes sense

When I think back to my college classes that involved instruction, I still get a chuckle now as I did then when a professor would show us the learning pyramid and emphasize how little students retain from lectures. Yet here we were crammed into uncomfortable seats being lectured at…sweet irony

learning pyramid

It was then that I vowed never to teach like that, for if I couldn’t sit still through an hour long lecture and walk away without being able to recall anything more than that, then there is no way my students would be able to either.  I would make sure that my lessons had the students moving around, discussing with others, using their hands, and practicing what they learned.  Suffice to say that over the years I have learned that there has to be a balance, that there are times when whole group instruction is necessary, BUT it shouldn’t be all the time, NOR should it be done every day in elementary math classrooms!

Last Saturday, I had the privilege of attending a workshop titled “Guided Math for Teachers”, and I decided to take one teacher from each grade level with me.  The workshop was hosted/run by Kathy Spruiell, who is currently a 4th grade math teacher in Gwinett County, Georgia.  My goal was to have each teacher come to understand just how important it is to have centers during a math lesson, and be excited to try it in their own classrooms.


Basically speaking, guided math is a methodology that allows the teacher to guide, prod, and increase the curiosity of his/her students through small math group instruction. During small groups, connections are made to previous lessons, manipulatives are used to gain deeper understanding of the content and for discovery of relationships (internalizes learning), and students are actively engaged.  The environment becomes rich with mathematical opportunities and it promotes the students’ ability to take personal control over their mathematical knowledge.  Each small group meets with the teacher for remediation, sharing of opinions and new ideas, extensions into real world connections, and for the teacher to get a quick gauge on the level of each student’s learning.

For the past three years I have been pushing the idea of Guided Math with very little buy in.  “Too much change” was the response that I would get because my school had just inherited a new principal the year before I was hired, and she was implementing her vision. Fortunately, I was part of that vision, and my ideas were as well.

Last year I was able to get two teachers on board and they were able to take the guided math model and make it their own!  The toughest struggle they encountered was figuring out the management piece.  Teachers have to be willing to “let go of the reins” so to speak because the groups that aren’t with the teacher are student directed.  For the small group instruction to work, teachers have to spend time “training” and trusting the students. What helps is planning intentional work for the groups that aren’t meeting with the teacher. Here in Georgia, Kathy Spruiell is the guru and has this part mastered.  This year my goal is to help create some model guided math classrooms where other teachers can go and observe.

As I mentioned previously, there are times when whole group instruction is needed so here is a quick break down of what a week of Guided Math could look like:


This schedule is not for everyone…I currently have a 3rd grade teacher who uses a Tic-Tac-Toe board she assigns to her students.  The center square is always, “meet with teacher”, while the other squares are work stations, games, manipulatives, and journal work that is enriching to the students and focused on the current standard.  This works for her class, but if I was to force her next door neighbor to use it….you get the idea.

Here is a glimpse at a sample of what a class schedule could look like:


The biggest question that I am always asked is, “how long should a small group be, because we don’t have enough time?”.  The answer is fairly simple: small group time=(age of students + 2) minutes.  So for the teachers who are running 20 minute centers; this is WAY too long.  An example would be 4th grade, the centers should be 12 minutes max, which means that the work that is being assigned HAS to be meaningful.  This comes from trial and error.  The 5th grade teacher who joined me at the workshop found out that the first time she didn’t plan enough, and  the next day planned too much for the centers. She and I are working together to solve this problem…

Laney Sammons, author of “Guided Math; A Framework for Mathematics Instruction” put it best in her preface, “There is no one “right” way to use Guided Math.  By sharing our ideas, we can help each other implement Guided Math in ways that work best with our teaching styles and in our classrooms.”

So the question becomes; What are you willing to do to get your students to have a meaningful relationship with math?  Keep plowing ahead standing at the board doing “I do, We do, You do”? OR Are you willing to change your teaching style to do what is really best for your students?

This post is dedicated to all those teachers who understand how to make math instruction FUN!

Thank you Kathy for doing what you do!


PS: A little caveat; Guided Math can be employed across middle and high school as well!!!



3 thoughts on “Math Centers?…it just makes sense

  1. Our district moved towards a guided group/math workshop model (at least in the elementary schools) many years ago. Now it is really the expectation. Of course there are different levels of buy-in, and competence, with the model. It takes planning and patience, and it can be overwhelming. It’s not an easy model to implement well.
    Some teachers interpret it to mean there should be no whole class instruction. But there are times when whole class lessons/activities/explorations are appropriate (i.e. 3-act tasks). Some teachers confuse centers with guided groups. Guided groups are supposed to be fluid, but kids often get stuck in the same group day after day, unit after unit. Teachers who don’t have great management skills struggle with implementing the model. Teachers who aren’t finely tuned to the needs and abilities of their students can assign work that is inappropriate (too hard, too easy) to their independent-working groups and this leads to behavior problems. Teachers who don’t spend the time up front training their students how to move from group to group, and how to work independently and with accountability also run into management problems. In my experience, the more support teachers have when implementing the model, the more successful it is.

    1. Joe,
      So many great things here! Especially the support, though there are so many who seem to dismiss the idea without even attempting it. How can we teach students to not fear change or to try something new if as teacher we don’t model it?

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