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Designing Math Classrooms Where Students Want to Join In

Participating in math class feels socially risky to students. Staying silent often feels safer. Motivated shows why certain teaching strategies create classroom climates where students want to join in. This book explores the key factors of motivational math classrooms along with strategies for weaving each one into your instruction.

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Do your math students offer one- or two-word responses in class?

Do your carefully planned lessons feel unsuccessful? “I’ve tried everything,” you think. “Shouldn’t math be a little more engaging?” Ilana Seidel Horn understands your frustration.

Participating in math class feels socially risky to students. Staying silent often feels safer. In Motivated, Ilana shows why certain teaching strategies create classroom climates where students want to join in.

Five factors of motivational math classrooms

She introduces six different math teachers, in a range of school settings, who found that motivation requires more than an interesting problem. Their experiences highlight five factors that lower the risks and raise the benefits of participation:

  • Belongingness comes from students’ frequent, pleasant interactions with their peers and teachers.
  • Meaningfulness answers the question, “When are we going to use this?”
  • Competence helps all students discover their mathematical strengths.
  • Accountability inspires students to participate in classroom life.
  • Autonomy produces learners with tools for making sense of their work and seeing it through.

These features of motivational math classrooms are explored in-depth. You’ll find suggestions for identifying what impedes each factor, along with strategies for weaving them into your instruction. You’ll also be introduced to an online community who support each other’s efforts to teach this way.

A guidebook for motivating math students

Motivated is a guidebook for teachers unsatisfied with questions met by silence. By examining what works in other classrooms and following the example of been-there teachers, you’ll start changing slumped shoulders and blank stares into energetic, engaged learners.

(click any section below to continue reading)

Appendix: Resources for Problems and Practices

Following is a collection of resources that can help you deepen the mathematical conversations in your classroom. They come from teachers, educational researchers, and mathematicians.

Which One Doesn't Belong? is a website dedicated to providing thought-provoking puzzles for math teachers and students alike. There are no answers provided as there are many different, correct ways of choosing which one doesn’t belong.

Mathematician James Tanton presents a whole host of curriculum essays, more general mathematical essays, and puzzlers. He offers books that address high school curriculum in a joyful and accessible way (with no sacrifice to rigor), respectful of the beauty and wondrous creative nature of mathematics.

Educational technology coach and mathematics teacher John Stevens curates examples of “Would you rather . . .?” questions that inspire mathematical exploration.

Mathematics educator Andrew Stadel collects interesting estimation challenges designed to help improve students’ number sense and problem solving skills.

Pyschologists Jon R. Star, Bethany Rittle-Johnson, and Kristie J. Newton have collected contrasting cases of important mathematical ideas to support students’ conceptual understanding.

The Mathematics Assessment Project helps teachers bring mathematical practices to their classrooms. The site includes materials such as tasks, scoring guides, and videos to illustrate how they play out in classrooms.

NRICH is a team of teachers who strive for rich mathematical thinking. The site offers problems, articles, and games organized by grade level.

Illustrative Mathematics offers carefully vetted resources for teachers and teacher leaders to help support meaningful mathematical learning. The site offers rich, standards-based curricular materials.

The free Accountable Talk® Sourcebook is an extensive introduction to the purposes of Accountable Talk and the classroom practices that promote Accountable Talk discussions at all grade levels.

Math Munch is a weekly digest of the mathematical Internet, curated by Justin Lanier, Paul Salomon, and Anna Weltman. There is a guide for teachers to help with classroom use.

The Educational Development Center has compiled these helpful tools for reflecting on and implementing accessibility strategies for mathematics classrooms.

Youcubed is the brainchild of mathematics education researcher Jo Boaler. There are many resources on the site, including an archive of low floor/high ceiling tasks labeled by topic and grade level.


Foreword by Dan Meyer


Chapter 1: The Motivational Classroom

Chapter 2: Meet the Teachers

Chapter 3: Belongingness

Chapter 4: Meaningfulness

Chapter 5: Competence

Chapter 6: Accountability

Chapter 7: Autonomy

Chapter 8: Growing Your Own Practice

Appendix: Resources for Problems and Practices

In Depth

The first chapter of this book lays out a framework for a motivational math classroom. In it, I discuss five key factors that lead to a motivational classroom: belongingess, meaningfulness, competence, accountability, and autonomy. After I introduce you to the six featured teachers in Chapter 2, the following five chapters address each of these motivational factors in turn. In Chapter 8, I give you some ideas about how to build, change, and sustain your own practice as you work to implement and adapt this framework for your and your students’ needs.

Along the way, I share examples not only from the six featured teachers, but from other colleagues in the #MTBoS. These additional pieces elaborate on main points or introduce some additional ideas or strategies.

Mathematics classrooms can be socially risky places for students. I hope you find this framework useful for thinking about designing your classroom in ways that lower social risk and motivate students to join in mathematical conversations.



"Motivated is filled with many resources that get to the heart of effective mathematics teaching. Ilana Horn introduces the reader to a range of inspirational teachers who share important ideas for engaging all learners."
—Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University, co-founder of, and author of Mathematical Mindsets

"In Motivated, Ilana Horn has found the perfect fusion of people and ideas, of practice and theory. In this engrossing book, both people and ideas come to life. She marries mathematics and motivation so that both are enhanced by the other."
—Julianne C. Turner, Professor Emerita at the University of Notre Dame and co-editor of the American Educational Research Journal

"Motivated is full of practical suggestions for how to encourage students' participation in the mathematics classroom, but it is more than a how-to book. Instead, it's a 'why so' book—it provides the reasons for why those instructional ideas work, thereby giving instructors the tools to think about their own teaching practices."
—Darryl Yong, Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College

"Participation in mathematics can be a social risk for many learners. Motivated provides a framework to support high participation in mathematics. Dr. Horn uses cases and examples that make the practices accessible to teachers who want to embed them in their classrooms."
—Robert Q. Berry, III, Associate Professor at the University of Virginia

"Motivated is a book that can help teachers create classrooms where the emphasis is on students: their sense of belonging, doing something meaningful, demonstrating competency, being accountable and becoming autonomous, making clear why this emphasis is important. The book reminds us that we should teach in order to support all of our students in their learning."
—Gail Burrill, Mathematics Specialist in the Program in Mathematics Education (PRIME) at Michigan State University