Math Games: Implementing Standards and Increasing Instructional Rigor

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Need for Change
Changing classroom routines and instructional practices is a challenging undertaking. Change, after all, is frequently unnerving. Nonetheless, change is required in mathematics classrooms due to the desired inclusion of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice (or revised mathematical standards in non-adoption states) and nation-wide demands for mathematical rigor.

In order to meet these requirements and demands, teachers and leaders need to develop and implement a plan of action that is reasonable, achievable, based on research, and successful. Mathematics games in the classroom can provide the power, confidence, and direction needed. Furthermore, and vitally important, games can provide both the impetus to actually launch change and the mechanism to sustain change momentum.

Math Games imageBenefits of Games
Children and young adults enjoy playing games. By their very nature, games are engaging and motivational. They provide rich opportunities for increasing classroom discourse and tap into students’ desires to learn and self-monitor their understanding. Games are also easy for teachers to introduce into classrooms.

In using games to help address the requirements and demands brought about by the Common Core State Standards or revised mathematics standards in non-adoption states, teachers and leaders must be purposeful and intentional if they want to be successful. While instructional, well-designed games used to effectively teach mathematics require careful planning and implementation by teachers.

Types of Games
There are two basic types of instructional games: skill and concept. The difference is more of a continuum rather than separation into distinct categories. Teachers and leaders need to be aware of this distinction and plan lessons appropriately. While games are inherently effective learning tools, teacher actions before, during, and after students play games determine both the level of success and the degree of rigor achieved by the students. Well-designed and implemented mathematics games do not distance teachers from instruction, but rather highly infuse and envelope teachers within the learning process.

Process of Change
To begin an instructional shift, teachers may wish to start with skill games. By doing so, students learn fundamental rules of classroom behavior needed for game play. Students learn to modulate their voice, share materials, play fair, follow rules, and cooperate. Following game play, students learn to initiate thinking about game strategies, difficulties encountered, and concerns over game or procedural rules. Another invaluable lesson is for students to learn self-responsibility and self-accountability.

After students have attained the fundamentals of classroom behavior needed for game play, teachers may include concept games. While skill games generally require little instructional preparation beyond having students learn the skill, concept games demand appropriate preparation. Concept games are frequently scaffolded over several days. Lessons ebb and flow between playing the game, discussing the game, and direct instructional input. Classroom discourse is essential to successful game play. Teachers must carefully structure instruction to ensure that misconceptions are addressed, the mathematics is clearly understood, students are able to articulate their thinking, and every student can clearly explain his or her understanding. To accomplish this, teachers must carefully consider their questioning strategies.

Positive Impact
Effective instructional strategies, when implemented as designed, intentionally increase students’ classroom involvement, thinking mathematically, and depth of reasoning. Including games within the mathematics classroom will have a positive impact upon learning. This effect is magnified when teachers use games to expand their range and depth of effective instructional strategies. As students increase their thinking and reasoning, classroom rigor in mathematics also increases.

Your Turn!
What positive effects from game playing do you find in your classroom? What challenges?

Hull_Ted 1

Ted H. Hull, Ed. D., served in public education for thirty-two years as a mathematics teacher, K–12 mathematics coordinator, school principal, and director of curriculum and instruction. Ted has coauthored numerous books addressing mathematics improvement.


Balka_Don 1Don S. Balka, PH.D., a former mathematics teacher, is Professor Emeritus in the Mathematics Department at Saint Mary’s College at Notre Dame, Indiana. He is currently President of TODOS and Past President of the School Science and Mathematics Association.


Harbin Miles_Ruth 1

Ruth Harbin Miles, Ed. S., currently coaches mathematics teachers and serves on the Board of Directors for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, and Virginia’s Council of Mathematics Teachers.



Check out these great resources for mathematical concept games written in collaboration by the authors above!

Math Games: Getting to the Core of Conceptual Understanding
Math Games: Skill-Based Practice for Kindergarten

Math Games: Skill-Based Practice for First Grade
Math Games: Skill-Based Practice for Second Grade
Math Games: Skill-Based Practice for Third Grade
Math Games: Skill-Based Practice for Fourth Grade
Math Games: Skill-Based Practice for Fifth Grade
Math Games: Skill-Based Practice for Sixth Grade

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