Math is Figure-Out-Able!

Ep 203: Instructional Routines

May 07, 2024 Pam Harris Episode 203
Ep 203: Instructional Routines
Math is Figure-Out-Able!
More Info
Math is Figure-Out-Able!
Ep 203: Instructional Routines
May 07, 2024 Episode 203
Pam Harris

What kind of instructional routines should you use in your classroom? In this episode Pam and Kim describe why instructional routines are useful and what makes some of their favorites shine.
Talking Points:

  • Unlocking creativity and reasoning with routine
  • Content flexibility within routines
  • The downside to one and done routines
  • How to decide which routines are worth establishing
  • What makes Problem Strings a great routine
  • Are games routines?
  • Each of our 3 favorite routines

Check out our social media
Twitter: @PWHarris
Instagram: Pam Harris_math
Facebook: Pam Harris, author, mathematics education
Linkedin: Pam Harris Consulting LLC 

Show Notes Transcript

What kind of instructional routines should you use in your classroom? In this episode Pam and Kim describe why instructional routines are useful and what makes some of their favorites shine.
Talking Points:

  • Unlocking creativity and reasoning with routine
  • Content flexibility within routines
  • The downside to one and done routines
  • How to decide which routines are worth establishing
  • What makes Problem Strings a great routine
  • Are games routines?
  • Each of our 3 favorite routines

Check out our social media
Twitter: @PWHarris
Instagram: Pam Harris_math
Facebook: Pam Harris, author, mathematics education
Linkedin: Pam Harris Consulting LLC 

Pam  00:01

Hey, fellow mathers! Welcome to the podcast where Math is Figure-Out-Able. I'm Pam, a former mimicker turned mather.


Kim  00:10

And I'm Kim Montague, a reasoner who now knows how to share her thinking with others. At Math is Figure-Out-Able, we are on a mission to improve math teaching.


Pam  00:18

We know that algorithms are amazing historic achievements. But Ya'll, they are not good teaching tools because mimicking step-by-step procedures can actually trap students into using less sophisticated reasoning than the problems are intended to develop.


Kim  00:32

In this podcast, we help you teach mathing, building relationships with your students, and grappling with mathematical relationships.


Pam  00:39

We invite you to join us to make math more figure-out-able.


Both Pam and Kim  00:44

Hey, Kim. Hi, Pam.


Kim  00:47

Hi. You're going to love this. Do you remember last week how I mentioned people leaving us a review? I actually was scrolling back and I found this one. The title is, "I don't write reviews." 


Pam  00:53

Mmm, mmhm. Okay.


Kim  01:00

It says... It's been a little while. But it says, "I've been listening since the beginning. I teach fourth grade. And have believed for a long time that as you say Math is Figure-Out-Able. But teaching it to a wide range of learners is very difficult, especially when they enter my class disinterested, lacking confidence, and believing that math is anything but figure-out-able." I bet some people can relate to that.


Pam  01:25



Kim  01:26

"I believe that learning for teachers as well as students takes experiences over time, so I keep working at it." I love that. 


Pam  01:34



Kim  01:34

I haven't written a review up to this point because I don't review anything. But the numbers 550,000 downloads and only 146 reviews moved me to action."


Pam  01:46



Kim  01:46

"Thank you for doing your part to help teachers give students a more authentic math experience. By the way, I was born on 7/28/56. I was meant to love math."


Pam  01:57

That's amazing.


Kim  01:59

Thank you so much for writing a review, even if you don't normally. And now, it's been a while because now we're almost at 900,000 downloads. Super fun.


Pam  02:07

Whoo! Hey, we're going to have to do something super cool when we hit 1 million. 


Kim  02:11

Oh, yeah. 


Pam  02:12

Which might be any day now because everybody's going to share, give us a review. Ya'll, maybe you know, maybe you don't know. But when you rate and review the podcast, then the algorithm show it to more people, more people can find it, and we can spread the word faster. So, we really appreciate you helping us spread the word. Thanks. 


Kim  02:29

Yeah. Okay. So, today, we're going to talk all about routines. And if you know me, you know I love a good structure and routine. 


Pam  02:39

You do. Yes.


Kim  02:40

You can ask my family. They love that about me.


Pam  02:43



Kim  02:43

So, let's get right at it. What should we know about routines in a math class? 


Pam  02:48

Well, so there's a couple different kinds of routines. But let's just start with maybe one of the brilliant things about a routine is that it can become routine. I know that sounds silly, but there can be this structure that everybody can be kind of comfortable with that they can go, "Ah, I know what I'm doing here. I know my role. I know what's expected. I know how to interact. Like, I'm not guessing. I'm not confused. I'm not uneasy. I'm not like looking around trying to figure out where the next missile is going to come from because I get what's going on here because it's become routine." When I was doing a gig a few years ago in New York City, I believe it was Nick. Hey, Nick. Shout out to Nick. Who talked a little bit about routines, and he talked about how. So, I was in New York City, right? And we met in some crazy places. It was kind of fun. So, we're in this like high rise building. And which teachers were talking about routines. And he said, "Consider improv." So you know the comedy thing improv where actors get together, and then they improvise on each other. And he said, "Do you realize that good improv is actually when the actors follow very specific guidelines. That that's when it can get really funny and clever. If they stay within these very specific guidelines, it opens them up to be able to be really creative, and spur of the moment, and spontaneous because they're able to trust what's happening around them. They know that when the actors are following sort of the guidelines, then they're able to riff off of them." I thought that was super interesting. That it's that trust that we're all kind of within this space, that then they're able to be super creative. And boy, doesn't that just strike you as what we want to have in math class? 


Kim  02:49



Pam  02:55

It's not that we're trying to pigeonhole people. It's not that we're trying to shove them into one, you know like, "Thou shalt think this way." It's like though there are these guidelines, and if we can all be... I don't know if comfortable is the right word. Secure in knowing that, ah, this is what's going to happen in this routine, in the structure, then bam, it just opens up our creativity. We feel like we can have the emotional bandwidth to be creative because we are secure, sort of in the structure. I like that. I think that really helps us think about why routine in a math class could be helpful. Now, there's a couple different kinds of routines. I think, Kim, you were probably much better at kind of the classroom setup sort of routine. Like, we joke whenever I do a workshop and there's something with classroom... Not classroom, but materials management.


Kim  05:38



Pam  05:39

I'll be like, "Hey, Kim, that's you." Like, Figure out how to hand that stuff out. Group those..." You know like whatever. Like, that's not my. I'm getting... I have gotten much better at it. But today, we're not talking about those kinds of routines. Today, we're talking about Instructional Routines. So... ...let me list a couple of definitions from some folks that we like. So, Grace Kelemanik, and Amy Lucenta, and Susan Janssen Creighton in their Routines for Reasoning said, "Instructional routines are specific and repeatable designs for learning that support both the teacher and students in the classroom, enabling all students to engage more fully in learning opportunities, while building crucial mathematical thinking habits." Whoo. Like that's pretty good. And then Ellen Kazemi and Frank and Lampart in their wonderful work said, "Instructional Routines are tasks enacted in classrooms that structure the relationship between the teacher and students around content in ways that consistently maintain high expectations of student learning, while adapting to the contingencies of particular instructional interactions." Alright, so lots of words there. Kim, how can we break this down into what does it mean to have an Instructional Routine?


Kim  05:54

Yeah. So, what I heard you say just now was that when things are routine, everyday is not new, that the kids aren't trying to figure out what's happening, that there are routines where once you've set them up, kids know what to expect, and they know how the routine is set up. And then what I love about many of the routines that we're going to talk about today or will be talking about is that once you set up the structure of the routine, then you can change out some of the content of the routine as often as you like, but because the format is the same, it's not wasted time, right? Like, you set it up, the kids know what to do, and then you can rotate content within it, so that you're getting new content on a regular basis. 


Pam  07:42



Kim  07:42

That you're not reconstructing all the time. 


Pam  07:45

Yeah, because that that takes time to say, "Alright..."


Kim  07:47



Pam  07:48

" this thing, now, this is a different structure. We're going to like..." You take the time to get everybody used to the structure. It's almost like, "Okay, and where's the content? Oh, yeah. Now, that we got the structure down, we do the content."


Kim  07:59



Pam  08:00

So, the first time you do a routine, it is going to take a hot minute, yeah?


Kim  08:03



Pam  08:04

To set that up. But then like you said, the brilliance is, then the more you do that routine, the more kids go, "Ah, okay. I'm clear what's happening here. I've got that structure. We don't have to take time to set it up, get everybody used to it. We can just dive in and really focus on the content. Yeah, that's really nice. 


Kim  08:23

And what we love about routines is that, again, that the content can switch out. But that means that we don't spend a lot of time on routines that are one and done. So, if you're going to take the time to set up a routine and do it well, then it has to be worth the time that it takes to describe what kids are doing, and how they interact, and where you find all the materials, and that kind of thing. So, if it's the kind of routine or the kind of activity that you're doing that is not repeatable, then it's probably not worth the time that it takes to get it set up because kids need some time to work that kind of stuff out, right? It takes time to explain and to practice. 


Pam  09:06

Yeah, and we definitely should at least take that into consideration strongly, right? If this is a thing. It looks shiny. It's going to be really great. Is it going to be worth the setup time because are you ever going to be able to take advantage of it again? Like, Kim, Peter Liljedhal's Building Thinking Classroom really takes advantage of this idea. Because I think the first time you put kids at vertical, nonpermanent surfaces, and you put them in randomly chosen groups, and you give them a problem, and you expect them to work with only one marker, and all the things, that takes a hot minute to get that set up. But then, when kids come in and you hand them a card, once you've done that a few times, they're like, "Okay. Like I know the drill. I go to the correct whiteboard. I know there's only going to be one marker here. I know I'm going to be working with randomly chosen. I can see it was visibly randomly chosen. I trust that that's happening. Maybe I don't really get along with these two today, but I know it's only going to be today because every time we switch up the group, so..." All of that structure, having been set up, gets the kids to be like, "Okay, I know what my role is here. Bam. And then, they can dive into actually working on the math to think as his Building Thinking Classrooms, they can dive into that thinking. So, I think that's an example of a routine that we could set up, where we get those benefits that we've kind of been talking about. 


Kim  09:06

Yeah. We've mentioned the idea of changing content within a structure. But I also think that there are times where the structure stays the same. I mean where the content stays the same, but the structure changes just a little bit. So, there are routines where maybe you're doing that routine whole class, and you understand the routine, and you've got it worked out. So, you might change out, you know, if you're doing it with whole numbers one day for a couple of weeks, then you change it to doing it with decimals. So, like, let's say we're playing I Have, You Need. If you're playing I Have, You Need, and you've been working with it as a big group, and you've been doing it with whole numbers, then as you enter into decimals, then maybe you're changing out that content, and you're not working with whole numbers anymore, you're working with decimals. But also, there might be small tweaks that are happening where you're working, you've been doing it with whole class, and then you might make some small change that you're working with partners. So, once they understand the routine, it could be little tweaks in different ways that you don't lose the overall effect of the routine, but you can make some small twists. Does that makes sense?


Pam  11:31

Totally, yeah.


Kim  11:32

Yeah. Another thing to note is that sometimes they're really fantastic routines that you might love. But they no longer maybe serve the purpose that they held when you first started the routine. So, we have to be open to the idea that there are routines that are... You know, you set them up. And it's great. And you've been doing them. But at some point, reevaluating is that still worth the time that I'm spending in my classroom? And sometimes I think we just say let's do more, more, more. Let's add on more and more. And there are quite a few routines that are options, right? There are some really good routines out there. There's a lot. And so, being judicious about the ones that you start doing because they can be... Okay.


Pam  11:32

Even when you're doing whole class, you could say, "Today, you're not going to call out the partner, you're going to write it down. Keep a list, and then we'll sort of go over those together at the end." Or, you know like, whatever. You're like. Sometimes teachers have said, "Pam, I played I Have, You Need and there's only three kids that are calling out the answer. And I don't know what to do." Well, yeah. So, then you want to switch it up and have them do it in partners one day or have them done it in small groups one day, or just have them write it down one day, or you might even choose students to call on. You know like, you sort of change up that part of it. But because it's a routine in all the other ways just tweaking one part doesn't mean that you're like having to start all over from scratch and spend a whole lot of time developing all the things. Long lasting?


Kim  13:01

Yeah, long lasting and used in a variety of ways is super important. But also maybe thinking about does this still help late in the year? Or is this really a better beginning of the year type activity.


Pam  13:14

And I wonder if an example of that would be a numberless word problems. 


Kim  13:18

Yeah, maybe.


Pam  13:18

So, let's be really clear. We like Brian Bushart. We like Numberless Word Problems. We think it's fantastic. But if you consider the purpose of Numberless Word Problems, I wonder if the biggest purpose for doing Numberless Word Problems is to get kids to actually read the question, and to think about the math and not just pluck numbers from it, and flip a coin, and do some sort of random operation, but they're actually diving in, figuring out what's happening. I would submit that if you do that a little bit to get kids in that mode, and at the same time structure your class, so that kids are learning and believing that Math is Figure-Out-Able, after a while I don't know that we really need Numberless Word Problems anymore because now kids are in the mode of whatever you give them, they're going to dive in and use what they know to figure out what's happening. Then we don't really need that routine anymore because that was sort of the purpose of the routine to begin with. But you might hit a new topic, a new content, or something.


Kim  14:18

Operation. Yeah. 


Pam  14:19

A new operation. And kids might be like, "I'm not really sure..." to And they might start guessing again. At that point, bring it back. You know like use your... In other words, don't just say, "Alright, every Monday we're going to do a Numberless word problem for the entire year." You might want to be flexible in that. Like, let what your students do guide the instruction. Yeah. That would be a good thing. Hey, but, Kim, would you agree that everything we just talked about is why we love Problem Strings so much.  Because once we can make that instructional routine routine, then bam we've got it set up and all year long. We can change out the content and we can have conversations about different content. There are different structures of Problem Strings. That's that little tweak that you were talking about.


Kim  15:05



Pam  15:06

Within the Instructional Routine of Problem Strings, we can have different structures, so kids are still a little bit like, "Whoa, that wasn't quite a string that we've seen. The way that we've done a string before. We have different models that we're using. I also like Problem Strings as... Hugely love them because we can have a K-12 conversation. 


Kim  15:24

Oh, yeah, Yeah.


Pam  15:24

I think there are some Instructional Routines that aren't K-12, that they're better for younger students. They're better for older students. But Problem Strings, bam, we can have a conversation where kindergarten teachers are talking to calculus teachers about, "Hey, you know like, how did you choose the model? Or how do you know which students to call on? Or how many students are you calling on per problem? And when do you compare strategies versus when do you only highlight the strategy you're going for?" And there's lots of great K-12 conversations that we can have across grade levels and across content that really make Problem Strings a strong choice for favorite Instructional Routine? 


Kim  15:41

for sure. And I also would say that there are times in the year, where you might do more strings and times of the year where you might do less of them just because of the time of the year, how much time you have in your class. You know, in the beginning of the year, I'm probably doing even more Problem Strings because I want my kids to be exposed to a variety of strategies maybe that they haven't seen or that I'm trying to develop. And then later in the year, I might roll back on some to bring out some strategies again, so. But I guess what I'm saying is that it depends on what's going on with my students, and in my class, and in my content. But again, once it's established, I can whip those back out, and it's not like a relearning process. I've never lost what my kids have learned and say, "Let's switch over a new routine."


Pam  16:54

Right. And then waste the time. Waste. 


Kim  16:55



Pam  16:56

At least used precious time to start a new routine when we could have just, yeah, kept them going. Hey, Kim, I'm kind of curious, would you call games, routines?


Kim  17:06

That's a good question. I think that doing games is a routine. Knowing how to get a partner, knowing how to find the materials you need, knowing expectations of gameplay. So, I think games, I would say games is a routine that happens in the classroom. I don't know that I would call a particular game a routine. 


Pam  17:27

Okay (unclear). 


Kim  17:27

And on that side note, there are definitely games that are one and done. I would not spend time doing those. But there are some high quality (unclear) I would not. I would not. One and dones games are, again, not worth it. The setup takes longer than the actual play and the math that's in it. But knowing how to play games appropriately in the class is a structure to set up. And then, finding high quality games that you can change out that content just like some of the strings we talked about is super beneficial. We know game plays important.


Pam  17:34

You would not. (unclear).  So, similarly when he brought up I Have, You Need earlier we can play I Have, You Need with partners of 10, but we can play I Have You Need with decimals. And last week's episode, we did it with radian measure with pie. Lots of different content that you can switch out. That helps make a routine worth starting. And you're saying same thing with a game. If you can have a game that you can come back to and kids who are still learning, I would just suggest... We've probably talked about this in other episodes. But one thing to me that makes a game worth starting, because it's going to come back and back, is a game that includes strategy. 


Kim  18:34

Oh, yeah.


Pam  18:34

When kids are the opportunity to think about strategizing in the game. Not just numerical strategies or math strategies. But strategy in the game. Like to win the game? That makes a game worth bringing back because it helps kids all keep wanting to think and, you know, strategize about how to win, so that.  Yeah. Hey, Kim, I'm kind of curious. What are your top three today? Today. What are your top three Instructional Routines? (unclear).


Kim  18:54

Yeah. Yeah, I'm glad you said today because I...


Pam  19:06

Would it change? It's not always the same? 


Kim  19:08

Well, I think it changes. So, you know, okay, so I think for sure Problem Strings are my favorite, and I Have, You Need are a close second. Those are... There's so much value in doing both of those that they can't not be in the top two. I think a third, though, will rotate based on what I'm doing. And, right now, I'll tell you what. Right now, I'm loving Would You Rather with my personal kids. 


Pam  19:33



Kim  19:34

And I know that's strange, because we also play MathStratChat, which is a fun routine. But Would You Rather gives kids the opportunity to consider two math things, and so they're kind of thinking simultaneously about two things. And yeah, I love it. 


Pam  19:52

I like Would You Rather because there's often not a correct answer. And it's not about which one's better. It's the discussion that happened. And in a big way, you get to kind of learn what they know about both of the things that you're considering.


Kim  20:06



Pam  20:07



Kim  20:08



Pam  20:09

Arguing. Justifying. All of that. Yeah, those are nice.


Kim  20:11

What about you? What are yours? I know your first one. 


Pam  20:14

Problem Strings. Hands down. Hands down all the time. Yeah. Definitely I Have, You Need is high up there. I also like As Close As It Gets. Though, that one is shorter lasting for me. As Close As It Gets is brilliant for getting kids out of knee jerk, "I better do." 


Kim  20:33



Pam  20:34

"What's the rule I should be doing here, steps. I'm going to start thinking (unclear)..." As Close As It Gets where you give kids a problem and there are four answer choices, but the correct answer isn't there. Their their job is to choose the answer that's as close to the correct answer. Gives kids a reason to approximate. Gives them a reason to use what they know to make sense. Give a reasonable kind of answer. That can be a really great way of getting people out of, like I said, that knee jerk, "I must do," That sense that math is a bunch of mimicking procedures. Yeah. 


Kim  21:09

Listen, you said that it's short lived, but I'm thinking right now I could see that at the beginning of the year to disrupt the notion of what math is about.


Pam  21:19



Kim  21:19

But I can also see that being pulled right back out as you introduce a new topic, a new concept, a new operation, so that kids can make sense of multiplication or make sense of fractions. 


Pam  21:32

Yeah. Yeah, I agree. I agree.


Kim  21:35



Pam  21:35

Yes. And it's one reason that I like it. It's a good one. I would also say if you had to nail me down, I also like clothesline math. 


Kim  21:42

Hey, you get three! 


Pam  21:44

Oh, man. Okay. 


Kim  21:45

There's some really good ones out there.


Pam  21:47

Those were tied in my head, so there you go. 


Kim  21:50

Okay, we are curious what your three favorite routines are. You should share those on social media. And while you're there, tell the world about Math is Figure-Out-Able podcast. 


Pam  21:59

Yeah, help us find new listeners, so we can keep growing and spreading the word. Ya'll, thank you for tuning in and teaching more and more real math. To find out more about the Math is Figure-Out-Able movement, visit And keep spreading the word that Math is Figure-Out-Able!