Why Guided Math isn’t Always the Best

Guided math has become one of the new “trends” in math professional development. It’s like as soon as these buzzwords arise, leaders are quick to want to shift immediately. But, like any new educational trend, we need to really evaluate whether or not the instructional strategy is the best fit for our students.
I can do guided math. I have done guided math. I still do guided math. But I can’t commit to it every day. And so I don’t always teach math the same way. I….wait for it….change it based on the content and my students’ needs! I think they call this “responsive teaching”? *shrug* Whatever you call it, it’s flexible, differentiated, and engaging!

Here is why:

  • Fully committing to just one way of teaching feels daunting. And not everything is best taught in small groups. (I mean, unless your class size IS a small group, then, yes, teaching your small group would be best.)

I like whole-group teaching.

It’s like putting on a performance and it’s fun! A strong whole-group lesson can have a high success rate. Deciding when the skill is best taught whole group or in small groups is key. Here are some of my favorite whole-group tools for math:

Sometimes it’s a full lesson followed by guided and independent practice. Other times, just a mini-lesson then break to centers. But we pretty much always start the week (or new skill) in whole group. And we always wrap up the Day 1 lesson with some type of assessment. It doesn’t have to be formal. Typically, it’s a “ticket back to their seat” (because we aren’t going out any doors…we are kind of stuck in the room until lunch) in the form of a question they answer on their whiteboard. Or, it’s a few problems (NOT a whole page) in their notebooks or journals. How do I track their understanding?

{no worries, these are not my students’ names…just random family members–ha!}
I love to use these Common Core Standard tracking sheets. They have each standard broken down into scaffolded steps. It makes it easy to identify where students are currently in their step towards mastery. I quickly jot down their name or initials next to their area of need. This helps me to form groups for guided math!

I like to teach half the class. Sometimes a skill or concept needs retaught to a larger group (but not the whole group). In this situation, I split my kids up into two groups and we just do a “swap” lesson. I project a slide like the one below by typing their names on the activity they will do first.

For example, if we are working on money, I might have 10 students that need to practice identifying coins and their values. But, my other 13 students are ready to count coin combinations. By breaking them into two groups, I can meet them right where they are at. This reduces boredom and confusion which cuts down on distracting behaviors. While I meet with the one group, the other group is working on something I know they can do independently (maybe workbook pages, iReady math lesson, math games on computers, interactive notebook page). I typically meet with the group with the bigger need so when it’s their turn to work independently, the skill is fresh in their minds.

I also like teaching small groups. One of the reasons it took me awhile to find my footing with guided math was that developing materials and planning for centers AND small groups seemed overwhelming. What are the other students doing? Math centers! I keep these as simple as possible.

Then some days, I don’t want to teach a small group.  What do I do then? Sit down, put my feet up and eat chocolate, of course! Yeah, right! I plan for all centers BUT teacher time is NOT one of them. Or we follow a “Must do” “May Do” schedule so I have the freedom to help those who need it. Gasp!

I will project a slide like this on my Promethean board. Students write their names under the activities they are choosing. This helps me hold them accountable and keep track of what they pick!

I meet with students 1:1. I love when I can carve out a little time for reteaching, assessing or enriching. I check in with students around the room. This took a real adjustment in thinking for me. If I am not teaching a group, how is this effective use of time? It’s accountability, it’s building relationships, it’s classroom management. It’s EVERYTHING.

For me, it isn’t one way or the other.  You can’t always do something the same all the time and always be successful.  Maybe you can, but not in teaching.

Closing thoughts:

  • Flexible groups are key. Math has so many different elements. A student may be struggling with place value but is really strong with telling time.
  • It’s okay not to do guided math every day and it’s okay not to meet with a group
  • The independent activities need to be reviewing basic skills or you will have a lot of confusion and questions.
  • Introduce new games by playing them whole group first
  • It is okay to differentiate homework. When I meet with half the class or small groups, I give them homework to match what we practiced. It doesn’t always make sense to give everyone the same homework.
Have any other questions about math instruction in my classroom? Feel free to leave a comment! Or, check out my IG for more teaching ideas and connect with me there!

Disclaimer: The links to some items in this post are affiliate links. This means, if you purchase the item through that link, I will receive a small compensation as an Amazon Affiliate. This is at no additional cost to you. I only recommend classroom items that I personally love and use in my classroom.

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