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Once Upon a Math Problem: Stories and Learning

Once upon a time, there was a red-headed fourth grader named Ned. Ned was bored in school, and he didn't get good grades. His mom was mad at him, his teacher pleaded with him, and Ned wanted to please them, but he just couldn't get interested enough in school to put in enough effort to really succeed.

I'll come back to red-headed Ned in a moment, but stop for a moment and ask yourself: Aren't you interested in Ned? Isn't focusing on a particular student, even if he's fictional, a lot more interesting than my usual blogs that begin with dilemma of policy and practice?

Kids (like adults) love stories. They live in a social world, where talking about each other, other friends and family, teachers, rock stars, and movie stars is a full-time activity. Every creator of TV or movie content knows this, of course, because effective storytelling is their stock in trade.

How can schools take advantage of children's interest in stories? Cooperative learning has been proven to help, because it engages students' own social worlds with their learning.

With the support of Old Dominion University's federal Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) scale up award, Success for All is now experimenting with adding stories to teachers' instruction and cooperative learning activities. We've created brief videos with puppets, appealing characters, and animations to supplement teaching. We have evidence that this improves learning in reading and are studying a similar strategy in math in England. Brief video vignettes are shown on interactive whiteboards at designated points in teachers' lessons.

Watching students and teachers using these embedded videos is exciting. Kids resonate to the videos and teachers use them as a point of reference in their lessons. We believe that this particular approach in math is making a difference, but we are continuing to study the method to be sure. In the meantime, it is clear that it certainly is engaging the kids, modeling cooperative learning and problem solving, and adding the magic of storytelling to math instruction.

So aren't you wondering what happened to Ned? Luckily, Ned's teacher adopted a program that uses embedded videos and research proven cooperative learning, and Ned is now excited about school, engaged with his peers, and feeling successful. If you're like most kids, you'll now remember the story of red-headed Ned a lot longer than you'll remember the rest of this blog. There has to be a way to use stories in just this way to help all the Neds out there who are more likely to learn if we embed learning in stories.

Editor's Note: Robert Slavin is Chairman of the Board of the Success for All Foundation

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