I’m done, what do I do now? This is one of the utterances I least enjoy hearing in my fourth-grade classroom, and yet as the new school year began I had a hunch that I’d be hearing it far too frequently—and I was right. As in previous years, each day’s math lesson resulted in some students needing more time to complete the activity, another handful of kids finishing in the allotted time, and still others who blazed through the task and were ready for the next steps.
The biggest problem with this scenario wasn’t having to come up with the next steps. Rather, it was managing the logistics of all of the different activities that were going on, including scheduling the time needed for completion, setting up groupings, providing instructions, gathering materials, and conducting assessments. After a while it felt like the kids and I were on a mathematical treadmill, always going, going, going, but not really getting anywhere, and certainly not finding the time for reflective conversation, critical thinking, and projects. I was getting frustrated, and for the first time in my three years of teaching, I was really motivated to do something about it.
Around that time, I happened to pick up a copy of Carol Ann Tomlinson’s The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. I was immediately drawn to a section entitled “Grade 4: Math,” and was astonished by the content it contained. What Tomlinson described there was exactly what I needed in my classroom: learning stations “where students work on various tasks independently” that allow for flexible use of time and a variety of student groupings (1999, p. 62). Learning stations would allow me to use a variety of mathematical contexts (e.g. problem-solving, basic skills practice, projects) and instructional strategies (e.g. small group instruction, partner work, quiz-show-style review, portable centers) that could be tailored to the individual learning goals of each of my students. I envisioned a math class where on any given day I could look around and see students hunker down to solve complex problems (and create their own!) in one corner of the room, explore a new math concept via online video at the computer station, practice fundamentals with hands-on centers while plopped down on our blue polka-dotted rug, gather around the small coffee table discussing the next steps in an ongoing math project, and engage in a conversation about a mathematical discovery, all at the same time! It seemed as though I had found the perfect solution to my instructional woes, and I couldn’t wait to try it out.
Unlike their popular classroom cousin, learning centers, learning stations “work in concert with one another,” linked by the same topic or subject (Tomlinson, 1999, p. 62). Centers, on the other hand, are distinct from each other and “students won’t need to move to all of [the centers] to achieve proficiency with a topic or set of skills” (p. 62). For example, a classroom might have a science center, a writing center, and an art center alongside a series of interrelated math stations.
When designed with diverse students in mind, stations support the idea of differentiating content, process, and product. A set of math stations on the topic of money, for example, can address content at varying levels of difficulty, from identifying coins and making combinations of coins in different amounts, to calculating cost per unit. In addition, the processes in which students engage can differ from station to station, with one station focused on direct instruction, another on problem-solving, a third station on project work, and so on. The products of such work could include exit cards, journal entries, drawings, and myriad other items that students use to demonstrate mathematical understanding and proficiency. Moreover, as a mobile, interactive, learning experience, stations also support the notion that constructing mathematical knowledge is not a passive endeavor, and that mathematical activity is in fact “both mental and physical. It requires the use of tools, such as physical materials and oral and written languages that are used to think about mathematics” (Harkness and Portwood, 2007, p. 15).
Bizar and Daniels warn that designing high-quality centers and stations can be time-and-resource-consuming, which sometimes leads to the construction of stations that are little more than poorly constructed “ambulatory seatwork” that diminishes the potential for meaningful learning (1998, pp. 91-92). In their view, worthwhile stations are characterized by three elements. First, stations must provide an opportunity for students to “learn or discover…to have an ‘aha’ experience.” The stations can be “applications or extensions of previously taught concepts, ones that illustrate topics currently being studied during other parts of the school day, or stations that preview upcoming topics,” but the authors specify that the stations “are not for review or assessment.” Second, the stations should offer “some kind of interaction,” preferably opportunities for students to engage in group exploration and conversation. The last facet, “a tangible outcome,” suggests that students should come away with (or leave behind) evidence of their experience at the station, such as a journal entry or a message to the next group of students arriving there. In addition, Ohanian writes that allocating a generous amount of time (days or weeks as opposed to minutes) for students “to experiment, to engage in ‘off-task’ speculation and tomfoolery” with station materials is an important part of setting the stage for discovery (1992, p. 126). Clearly, active participation is encouraged when stations are set up in this manner, in sharp contrast to the silent, stationary seatwork that still dominates many traditional classroom settings.
In discussing what stations are not, it is important to point out that stations are intended to be used by all students, not just a select few. As Patti Drapeau notes, “To many teachers, [stations] are essentially ‘free-time’ centers where students go when they finish their work” (2004, p. 77). In terms of practicality and educational equity, this approach is problematic. As Drapeau describes, “If the activities are too challenging, students typically complain about the work and don’t want to go there. If the activities are ‘easy and fun,’ then I feel they should be for all students, not just for the ones who finish early” (p. 77). If stations are set up as the high-quality learning experiences described above, then we as educators have an ethical obligation to ensure equal access for all students.
Shortly after stumbling upon the idea of learning stations in Tomlinson’s book, my initial enthusiasm waned ever so slightly when I realized that, like many things in life, implementing an entirely new math program mid-year would be easier said than done. While on one hand I was ready to jump right into making these big changes, I also knew that I needed to create a strong organizational system to support this kind of learning; without it, the students couldn’t achieve the degree of independence and self-monitoring that was critical to the success of this kind of instructional approach. In addition to creating the framework for the stations, I would also need to schedule in some time to actually teach the students all of the structures and routines, plus articulate the expectations for and goals of each station. All of this may explain why it was not until several weeks later that I even considered introducing the idea of stations to my students, let alone start to use them in the classroom.
After devoting a few long days over winter break last year to putting all of the pieces of the new program together (tackling issues such as communication, group size, readiness level, assessment, student choice, etc.), I finally felt ready to bring forth the fruits of my labor to the students. On the first day back from the break, I began right away by describing the rationale of the new program (nothing like a new calendar year to justify a major change in the way you do things!). As I described my Big Idea, their young faces lit up with curiosity. I had their full and undivided attention as I pointed to the big pocket chart with the names of the stations written on colorful pieces of construction paper. They followed my every move when I held up a copy of the Daily Memo, a piece of paper adorned with a simple graphic of a clipboard that would serve as a written list of their to-dos at that particular station. Twenty sets of eyes pored over the details of the Exit Cards they would be filling out at the conclusion of the day’s work.
With the promise of a richer, more exciting math experience on the horizon, the anticipation only grew each day with the introduction of Teacher Town (small group instruction), Center City (folder games/activities), Media Mall (computer and web-based activities, games, and demos), and Project Place (applied learning opportunities). After a brief hiatus to get caught up on some neglected content, we rounded out the line-up with Quiz Corner (Jeopardy-style review game), Practice Plaza (basic math fact review activities/games), and Problem Park (word problems). Each new addition to the list of stations was met with the same high level of enthusiasm as the first, making all of the behind-the-scenes work feel completely worth it, and bringing a huge grin to my face every time I thought about what was to come.
After introducing each of the seven stations over the course of three weeks, not a single day had gone by without at least one student asking me, “When are we going to start the stations?” I must admit that although I knew I had done my best to prepare for this huge change in my instructional methods, I was still somewhat hesitant to launch into this unknown territory. I wanted to believe that I had designed everything so well that all difficulties would be avoided, but if I have learned anything about teaching and about working with children, it’s that you can always expect the unexpected. It was time for me to just jump in and trust that, like my students, I would learn everything I needed to know along the way.
Looking back on a semester’s worth of using learning stations in my classroom, I can say that my students and I experienced many of the benefits that emerge from interactive learning and having different students working on different activities at the same time. On the other hand, I also experienced some challenges in organization, record keeping, and ensuring on-task behavior. I will be implementing stations again this year and I’m excited to learn even more about how to use stations effectively to meet the needs of my different math students. To that end, I have designed an action research project to explore the question, “How can I use mathematics learning stations to differentiate instruction and increase student math proficiency?” I feel that giving learning stations a trial run has given me great insight into the potential of this instructional strategy to support a diverse group of learners. I look forward to using the stations in new and different ways, and evaluating the effectiveness of this approach in the months to come. Ultimately, I hope those cries of “I’m done!” become a thing of the past, replaced by laments of “Math class is over already?” Will I find success in this mathematical makeover? We will see. Next year, I’ll let you know how it all turns out!
Bizar, M., & Daniels, H. (1998). Methods that matter: Six structures for best practice classrooms. York, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Drapeau, P. (2004). Differentiated instruction: Making it work. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc.
Harkness, S. & Portwood, L. (2007). A quilting lesson for early childhood preservice and regular classroom teachers: What constitutes mathematical activity? The Mathematics Educator, 17(1).
Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ841558.pdf
Ohanian, S. (1992). Garbage pizza, patchwork quilts, and math magic: Stories about teachers who love to teach and children who love to learn. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
To learn more about Samantha Gladwell’s on-going research with learning stations, visit her digital portfolio at https://samgladwell.weebly.com/