Get Up, Stand Up! 360 Degree Math Revolutionizes Classrooms

The origin story of a promising new teaching method.

Math Is Fun, 360 Degree Math
Ninth-grade algebra students are filmed for the documentary 'TEACH' as they participate in a new learning method called 360 Degree Math. (Photo: Don Holtz)
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

For generations, math has been taught according to the same, basic class structure—teachers lecture their students on concepts, and then ask them to work individually on math problems in their notebooks. 

It's a tradition that educator Sean Kavanaugh sees as inherently flawed.

It is an approach to mathematics that makes the thinking and the learning visible on all four wallsAfter 17 years in the field, he argues that the most important part of any math lesson is the student's thinking. When 35 students are scribbling in notebooks, teachers are prevented from seeing evidence of the students' thought processes as they unfold. Instead, mistakes are usually caught long after they're made and instructors may have trouble pinpointing where a student first went off the rails.

In order to bring teachers closer to their students' classwork, Kavanaugh created 360 Degree Math, a uniquely structured system that takes all the students out of their chairs and places each of them in front of their own whiteboards to solve problems. "It is an approach to mathematics that makes the thinking and the learning visible on all four walls in the classroom," Kavanaugh says. "The teacher becomes the audience and the students become the performers."

The idea originally came to him two years ago, while watching another math teacher struggle to engage his students. "I had seen it so many times before," Kavanaugh says. "But this was a really good teacher. The feeling was so visceral it caused my mind to wander and imagine how learning could be more effective in the math classroom."

His frustration, coupled with the failing math test results from his African American and Hispanic students, inspired him to devise a new way to teach the subject, one where every child could benefit from on-going attention and support.

So far, Kavanaugh has found the results of 360 Degree Math to be compelling. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, a Denver-area school that covers grades 6-12, had for some time struggled with low test scores; 78 percent of its students tested below proficient on the Mathematics assessment. But one year after implementing 360 Degree Math, students at MLKJ outscored their peers across Denver Public Schools.

Convincing teachers at the school to try his new approach was surprisingly easy. While interviewing for MLKJ's assistant principal position, Kavanaugh talked about his vision, and watched the faculty around him nod their heads in agreement. He plainly told the principal, "Here is the deal: If you don't hire me, you can't take my idea." Kavanaugh was hired on the spot and MLKJ's transformation began.

Lindsay Chinn, a teacher featured in the new documentary TEACH, was among the staff at MLKJ. Using 360 Degree Math in her classroom, Chinn found that her students were more engaged and having more fun because they were more involved.

Over the last five decades, educators have struggled to come up with the magic formula that will make more U.S. students competitive in math. Every decade or so introduces a new curriculum—New Math with its emphasis on concept discovery, Traditional Math with its return to computation and memorization, Reform Math with its focus on real world applications—but the proportion of U.S. students who achieve an advanced level of comprehension remains slim. 

However, Kavanaugh's program isn't a curriculum. Instead, it's a structure of classroom management, based on neurological and educational research, that's made up of five steps.

  • The Exchange: As each student enters the classroom, they're personally greeted by the teacher—a sign of respect and welcome.
  • The Rewind: Students solve three relatively simple problems at the whiteboard to build their confidence.
  • The Micro-Lecture: The teacher gives a short lecture that's kept between eight to 10 minutes in order to go over new concepts. 
  • The Practice: Students return to the whiteboard, where they spend the bulk of the class, to solve more challenging problems, facilitated by group discussions and collaboration.
  • The Proof: Work is done individually on the boards and reviewed by the teacher to help her plan the next lesson and understand where each student is in his or her mastery of skills. 

All five steps are necessary, but the collaborative element during the Practice is especially important. First, it engenders peer support—a huge win for students who are struggling to be everywhere at once. But it also fosters creativity, a component that's often missing in traditional math classes.

As Chinn explained in a previous interview, "You have to become a critical thinker to solve any problem in any degree," she says. "If you were at a job and you had a problem, I’d want you to be able to come at that problem in five different ways, and math allows you to do that. There’s not just one way to solve a problem. There might be one right answer, but there’s six different ways you could get there and none of them are wrong."

Despite how different a 360 Degree Math room looks most of the time—with the teacher standing in the middle of empty chairs and the kids up at whiteboards on every wall—teachers seem to easily adopt the method. Kavanaugh has successfully taught 360 Degree Math to educators from a variety of backgrounds, from first-year teachers to veterans with 25 years of experience. "The big challenge for teachers," he says, "is that now you have all your students up and kind of organically moving around the classroom and learning from each other in a social network. It's not difficult, but it changes your mindset."

When a school wants to use the program, Kavanaugh pays the staff a visit, spending about six to eight hours in a training session with them. During that time, teachers pull out their current lesson plans and he helps apply them, step-by-step, to the 360 Degree process. "We actually have [the teachers] practice," he says. "We have the teachers up on the boards in the classroom and have them practice seeing it and practice responding to it. So they walk out of that room feeling fully confident."

Once that training session is completed, educators introduce the applications of the program to their students gradually, and in about 10 to 12 classes, can expect to have it fully implemented.

Because it's adaptable to different curriculums, Kavanaugh's goal is to make 360 Degree Math a universal approach to teaching mathematics. "It's such an amazing difference in culture, in kids, and their confidence," he says. "It's not philosophies, it's not standards, it's not curriculum, it's just how kids learn. And if you can't match how kids learn to how teachers teach, you're never going to close that gap and have high-achieving kids."

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.

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