Innovative Ways to Teach Math

A Math Program Developed at Phillips Exeter Academy

Phillips Exeter Academy. Photo © etnobofin

Believe it or not, math can be taught in some very innovative ways, and private schools are some of the top educational institutions pioneering new ways to learn a traditional subject. A case study in this unique approach to teaching math can be found at one of the top boarding schools in the US, the Phillips Exeter Academy.

Years ago, teachers at Exeter developed a series of math books, and the problems, techniques, and strategies within those texts are now being used at other private day and boarding schools.


The Process of Exeter Math

The math courses at Exeter are centered on the math problems written by the teachers. The entire course is different from traditional math classes in that it is problem-centered rather than topic-centered. While the traditional middle or high school math class generally presents a topic and then asks students to carry out a lot of endless drills based on mastering procedures for homework, the Exeter math classes involve little direct instruction drills. Instead, students are given approximately a small number of word problems to complete each night. There is little direct instruction about how to complete the problems, but there is a glossary to help students, and the problems tend to build on each other. The students direct the learning process themselves. 

Each night, students work on the problems, doing the best they can, and log their work. In these problems, the learning process is just as important as the answer, and teachers want to see all of the students’ work, even if it is done on their calculators.

What if a student struggles with math?

Teachers suggest that if students are stuck on a problem, they make an educated guess and then check their work. They do this by making up an easier problem with the same principle as the given problem. Since Exeter is a boarding school, students can visit their teachers, other students, or the math help center if they are stuck while doing their homework in their dorms at night.

They are expected to carry out 50 minutes of concentrated work per night and to work persistently, even if the work is very difficult for them.

The next day, students bring their work to class, where they discuss it in a seminar-like style around a Harkness table, an oval-shaped table that was designed at Exeter and is used in most of their classes to facilitate conversation. The idea is not to just present the right answer but for each student to have a turn presenting his or her work to facilitate conversation, share methods, work out problems, communicate about ideas, and support other students.

What is the Purpose of the Exeter Method?

While traditional math courses emphasize rote learning that does not connect to everyday issues, the purpose of the Exeter word problems is to help students really understand math by working out the equations and algorithms themselves rather than just being given them. They also come to understand the applications of the problems. While this process can be very difficult, particularly for students new to the program, students learn traditional math areas such as algebra, geometry, and others by working out the ideas themselves. As a result, they really understand them and how they relate to mathematical issues and problems they could encounter outside of the classroom.

Many private schools across the country are adopting the Exeter math class materials and procedures, particularly for honors math class. Teachers at schools using Exeter math state that the program helps students own their work and take responsibility for learning it—rather than simply having it handed to them. Perhaps the most important aspect of Exeter math is that it teaches students that being stuck on a problem is acceptable. Instead, students realize that it’s all right not to know the answers right away and that discovery and even frustration are in fact essential to real learning.

Updated by Stacy Jagodowski