Reimagining the Math Classroom with Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools Fall Convening



Katherine Cheng

Strategic Partnerships, Implementation & Innovation Expert



It was an honor to attend the Fall Convening with Henrik and the League of Innovative Schools, celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Digital Promise and all that the League has accomplished. It was incredible to be reconnected because the first time I worked with Digital Promise was back in 2015, when there were maybe about 40-50 districts as a part of the league and now it has truly grown. The League of Innovative Schools has been advocating to accelerate innovation for the sake of creating equitable spaces for students to learn, through national-level policy and action meetings, efficacy studies and white papers, meeting with folks at the capital, and trying to build collaboration between not only districts, but also with vendors and other key stakeholders.


Now that you know what Digital Promise is about, you can probably imagine the challenges a superintendent has to face day in, and day out, that on top of having just moved passed the most intense year and a half with COVID and school closures, as well as trying to pioneer and progress innovation in a very archaic and bureaucratic system (read: the education system) -- these members of the League have accomplished no small feat! Here are some reflections.


It truly brings tears to my eyes to see administrators advocating on behalf of their districts. With 3.8 million students represented, each student has a story, and is part of a greater ecosystem. It reminded me of what my childhood was like, growing up in an unsafe home but feeling like public school was the one place I could receive unconditional love and belonging -- school was my safe place. Being at the Fall Convening reminded me of all the pieces that had to come together for me to have a safe place like my schools to be in. I am so grateful for each and every one of these folks I would consider heroes and heroines, as they take on the burden to create spaces safe for kids who are just like who I was when I grew up.

Chris Rush, the Senior Advisor to the Secretary for Innovation and Director of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, aptly stated,


“Innovation is our pathway to equity.”


There's been so much noise around the words equity and inclusion the last few years especially. What moved my heart this last week was to actually see action being taken to move in this direction, through the means of innovation and advocacy and care.

Innovation being the great disruptor and equalizer is true in so many arenas. If we look at the way the world works, and just our limits as human beings, keeping the status quo is only going to get us so far. It's when we start pushing beyond our current norms and boundaries that we discover there are ways to scale access in and outside of classrooms.


Take our favorite area to explore: the math classroom. Especially in NYC or Los Angeles, it's not rare to find a classroom of 35 students to 1 teacher. How much real attention can a teacher give each student? How much time within a class period, if this teacher was to give some individual attention, could they actually gain understanding? It's nearly impossible. There have been some great math tech tools over the years like Khan Academy, creating avenues for students to be able to go on a device (which has also been a wonderful move towards digital equity), and to quickly move through an "adaptive algorithm" that is supposed to give the student a "personalized pathway" at their best level. These programs that many educators and I agree on naming, the "set-it-and-forget-it" type serve their purposes in giving students an unlimited amount of extra practice problems... wonderful! But now those have been around since 2008, nearly 13 years ago. That is a very long time. And I wonder how equitable these algorithms are? What bias is built within them that perhaps don't take into account the whole child? I get that there isn't a perfect tool, and there are always pros and cons, but I digress here. What would or could equity in the math classroom look like, if were to innovate in such a way that the teacher...

  • could take into account the whole child?

  • could fully understand a student's mathematical understanding?

  • could use a tool that did not present the math question in such a way that might alienate, but included the child?

This is just one small, tiny niche that I am addressing here. But what if we zoomed out and looked at how mathematics is taught in the classroom?


The way that mathematics has been taught in the last century... has it changed that much?


Do teachers not still mainly stand up in front and instead of a green board with white chalk, it's gone to an overhead projector to now a digital whiteboard?


What would it look like if pedagogically, we adapted with the times and we thought of more inclusive and culturally responsive ways of teaching?


What if...


What if students came from social studies or art class and instead of getting into single file row by row seating in the math classroom, with their own little desk, with a pile of worksheets or even their own computer, they worked more in groups and collaborated and really debated their reasonings for why they solved the problem the way they did?


What if the math classroom looked more like a debate class, or band class, or recess?


These were just some of the conversations I was lucky enough to participate in, especially with Digital Promise's new President and CEO, Jean-Claude Brizard. Congratulations on your new role, Jean-Claude! We are all cheering you on and feel so extremely lucky to have your leadership along with the rest of the powerful and incredibly creative Digital Promise team.


We are so grateful for the opportunity to participate this convening and look forward to seeing everyone at the next one. Let's keep brainstorming, because we really are on the cusp of a tipping point!


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About the Author


Katherine Cheng, aka "KC" (@katherinechengx) is a lover of learners. She wears many hats at Magma Math but her favorite being in the classroom or at a district office, trying to problem solve and brainstorm the best ways to innovatively and imaginatively implement the best digital tools for the best math practices. With over 8 years of experience in the math edtech space, she has a lot to say about what works and what doesn't work. Reach her on LinkedIn or at kat@magmamath.com.

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