students working together.jpgIn this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the work of teachers Kristen Muscat-Fennell, Kelly Little, Stephanie Skelton, Darrell Bax, and Lee Sparling of the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB).


When Kristen Muscat-Fennell learned about the balanced mathematics approach to teaching, she knew she had found a game-changer.


“It’s a framework for mathematics instruction that really supports student engagement, mindset, confidence-building, and achievement in students,” explains Muscat-Fennell, a Vice Principal and former Instructional Resource Teacher (Mathematics K-8) and teacher/math coach at Fieldcrest Elementary School.


kristen muscat.jpgKristen's balanced mathematics program is based upon the work of fellow Simcoe County District School Board teacher Lee Sparling, who shared her research and approach in her book Balanced Mathematics in 2005.


What is a Balanced Math Program?


The balanced math program aims to improve student attitudes toward math while they develop procedural fluency, conceptual understanding and problem-solving. Some components of the program which support higher-level thinking, problem solving and communication include:sample student journal.jpg


Math Journals: Math journals are an independent activity where students reflect upon and communicate their thinking about math in a variety of ways. The use of open questions promotes students to use math language, make personal connections and reflect upon their thinking. For example, in the primary grades students might communicate their math thinking in different ways, such as in pictures, numbers and words. See images (right) for example student math journal entry and, below left, math journal assessment.


math journal assessment.jpgMath Facts: Math facts ensure students have regular opportunities to build procedural fluency while learning and practicing math. Math fact examples might include learning all of the combinations of 1-digits numbers (2+2, 6+9, 8+4, etc.) and the corresponding subtraction exercises
(9-4, 8-5, etc.).


Math Games:  Math Games provide opportunities to build math confidence and develop positive attitudes towards math, while reducing the fear of failure and error. Games provide a fun, engaging way to practice skills and concepts. Examples of math games include flashcards, card games and dice games.


Shared Mathematics: Shared mathematics provides an opportunity for students to learn with others. Students work together to solve a higher order-thinking problem, which offers an assessment for, as or of learning. Each student has a job, such as reader, recorder, calculator or presenter, and all collaborate to solve the problem. A consolidation of learning occurs during a ‘share the wealth’ where strategies are discussed and connections to the learning goals are made. See the shared problem solving collage at the bottom of the page. student work.jpg


Guided Mathematics: Guided mathematics provides an opportunity for small groups of students, gathered according to assessment for learning to work directly with the teacher. They may solve problems, review challenging concepts, explore new technology (and how it can be used to help solve problems), explore manipulatives, focus on specific problem-solving strategies or math processes and learn new math games. For example, students may be asked to work backwards on a math problem, guess and check or look for a pattern.


Independent Mathematics: Independent mathematics provides an opportunity for students to learn on their own based on previously taught material and to stretch and deepen their thinking. Students can use group members to decode words or clarify the problem, but then work independently. This is an ideal time for students to integrate stands and spiral curriculum. An example task might be, "Raisins and sunflower seeds are sold together in packages of 250g. The ratio of the mass of sunflower seeds is 3 to 5. Determine the mass of raisins in a package. Show your work."


In the balanced mathematics program, open questions, parallel tasks, inquiry-based learning, rotating content, technology-enabled learning and a variety of assessment practices are also used. The program has proven successful for students from K-8, with great potential to be used in grades beyond.


“Teachers have adapted the program to meet the diverse needs of their students and incorporate their own teaching styles and ideas,” she says. “I think the flexibility of the program has helped with its success along the way. It’s been a sustainable, exciting project,” she says.




Teachers using the balanced math program saw increased improvement in students' procedural fluency, conceptual understanding and mathematical problem solving. They also saw improved student engagement and improved attitude for math learning. In a 2012 survey of over 300 Junior and Intermediate students participating in the program, 73% said they had increased confidence about problem solving as a result of the balanced mathematics program and 69% reported improvement in their ability to explain their math thinking. In a 2013-2014 teacher survey, 79% of teachers said they saw an increase in collaborative and independent problem-solving skills in students, 76% reported an increase in student engagement and 68% reported an improvement in student attitudes towards mathematics.


“Students are increasingly learning to use other sources to find their answers rather than coming to me,” reports a Grade 4 teacher. “They are talking more in math words, especially during math games and shared problem solving.”


This program is popular with the students. “The kids cheer for a balanced mathematics program,” Muscat-Fennell reports. “They like it. They have voice and choice.”


One Grade 3 student explained, “I like shared problem solving because I get a chance to communicate with my group and explain my thinking. I already know all of my ideas but if I share with someone else they can use my strategy too and I can use their strategies.”

math bins.jpg

Elementary principal Chris Russell reports, "When I do walk-throughs during math time I see much more involvement, excitement and fun in classrooms. More students are talking accountably and working effectively with peers."


Mobilizing Mathematical Knowledge


Finding marked success with the program, Muscat-Fennell spent the last several years sharing what she’s learned with other teachers, first through leading a Teacher Learning and Leadership Program project starting in 2011, and more recently, through the Provincial Knowledge Exchange.


“With the TLLP, our team was looking to share beyond the walls of our school,” Muscat-Fennell explains. "The project began by sharing with teachers at eight other schools and grew from there. Participating teachers were given release time to learn, practice, co-plan, and explore the program together and in their classrooms. To date, more than 350 teachers from over 50 schools have learned about the balanced mathematics program through these knowledge-sharing projects.


The team’s work implementing the program and sharing the learning earned Fieldcrest E.S. the prestigious Canadian Education Association’s Ken Spencer Award for innovation in 2015.




Questions? Ideas? Comments? Ontario educators can register on TeachOntario and join in more in-depth conversation about this teacher in Share under: TeachOntario Talks Discussions: Spotlight on Award-Winning Balanced Mathematics Program