At Fair Oaks Elementary in Brooklyn Park, teacher Michelle Kennedy pushes her math students to give her more than just the right answer.

Her tactic was on display during a recent lesson when she asked her class: What is three plus three?

"It's a six!" a kindergartner blurted out.

"Why?" Kennedy asked, unsatisfied.

"I saw it in my head," the timid student explained.

"How did you see it in your head?" Kennedy persisted.

"I see a three and a three," the student answered.

These kinds of discussions are increasingly becoming the new normal in math classrooms across the Twin Cities, as more school districts overhaul the way they teach the subject. To date, more than a half dozen metro school districts are revamping their math programs.

The new approach: less memorizing formulas and more focus on understanding math concepts and building up kids' confidence to do math. School leaders say the changes are necessary to shift the emphasis from boosting test scores to better preparing students to excel in college and in the workforce.

"Our instruction needs to change to meet the needs of today's workplace," said Kim Pavlovich, director of secondary curriculum, instruction and assessment for the Anoka-Hennepin School District.

Not everyone is convinced that change is needed, however.

Critics argue that the new approach bombards students with too many learning styles and fails to teach them basic math.

At a January information session on the Anoka-Hennepin district's math changes, parents voiced their worries that the interactive lessons will be "a real struggle" for their introverted kids.

This year, Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest school system, is testing two new districtwide math programs — EnVision and College Preparatory Math (CPM).

Meanwhile, Osseo Area Schools is piloting new math programs, called Bridges and Everyday Math 4, in its elementary schools.

And the Columbia Heights School District recently adopted a Singaporean curriculum called Math in Focus for its elementary schools.

The growing trend of school districts changing their math instruction to create more interactive classrooms stems from decades of academic research seeking to unravel what kids need in order to learn the subject, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

State education officials say the new wave of math programs helps teachers break free from old teaching habits, such as dictating from the board to students who sit in rows. These kinds of programs also move instruction toward a more "discovery-based approach" to learning that allows students to wrestle with problems in groups while injecting the thought process into learning.

It's a method that state officials say has a proven track record of improving student learning.

National push

Math education is attracting national attention.

The White House has directed the U.S. Department of Education to spend $200 million annually on grants that foster science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar is also making a pitch to school districts to make STEM education a priority, urging them to invest in creating STEM-focused specialty schools or improving existing STEM programs.

"Math gives students the critical thinking and problem-solving skills they need to be successful in the 21st century economy," Klobuchar said in a statement.

Minnesota schools that are taking a fresh approach to math education see a critical need to properly train the teachers to effectively use the new curricula.

To address this, school districts are adding math specialists to help implement the new programs.

On a recent Thursday, eighth-graders at Roosevelt Middle School in Blaine tackled math problems together using the CPM program that focuses on teamwork.

They sat in small circles in a classroom, decorated with motivational words such as "I'm going to train my brain to do math" and "Mistakes help me improve." They measured the rebound ratio for a small ball in groups of four, carefully explaining their answers to each other. They demonstrated to the teacher who was walking around the classroom that they knew how to at least solve a decrease in a quantity using graphs and measuring sticks.

Math teacher Carrie Paske peppered each group with such questions as "Tell me why you think that?" to gauge their critical thinking skills.

In her class, students use objects like algebra tiles to help them visualize algebra. Homework also has become less of a burden because students take home no more than five problems.

And if pupils are currently studying unit six, for example, then most of their homework and quizzes are from previous lessons. Paske says this method lowers students' math anxiety and the hands-on materials help them do the work "without knowing they're doing math."

"They are still making some of the little mistakes we have always seen," Paske said. But with the new approach "students are picking [up] the overall topic so much quicker."

Back at Fair Oaks Elementary in the Osseo School District, math has turned into a group effort.

The new Bridges curriculum allows kids to take turns leading some of the math instruction and helps them figure out multiple ways to find the correct answers.

For English language learners studying math, the curriculum's use of visuals helps them explore the subject in their native language. And for the on-duty student volunteer, the new math program creates moments of fame that allow students to show off their skills and sharpen their confidence.

"With this method, kids can freely express their mathematical thinking and it keeps them focused on learning," Kennedy said.

Faiza Mahamud • 612-673-4203