Whether you are just getting started with a workshop approach to math or you have already implemented your own version, I have some tips for structuring math workshop to maximize the benefits. This post is the first in a series of three, so stay tuned for more!

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Many teachers, frustrated with the limitations of whole-group math instruction, are moving to a guided math or workshop approach to teaching math. In this structure, teachers provide increasingly more instruction in a small group setting, while students work independently in workstations. The chart below shows what the transition might look like as a teacher moves from a traditional structure on the left, to one utilizing a shorter daily mini-lesson, and finally to a situation where most first-line instruction takes place in small group. Note that as you move away from whole-group instruction, students are spending increasingly longer amounts of time working independently. In fact, they might be spending the bulk of their math instructional block working in workstations. Think about the implications of that statement. If we don’t carefully plan our workstation tasks, that time is largely wasted.


Define a purpose for each math workshop station and incorporate process standards.

Often, the tasks that are used in math workstations focus only on content standards. It’s important that we remember that the process standards, defined by NCTM, “highlight ways of acquiring and using content knowledge.” As depicted in this graphic, they are an umbrella over the content standards. When we designate specific purposes for our workstations, it not only ensures that we include the process standards, but it also actually makes planning easier.

Integrate technology into workstations

Often, technology is used as a standalone station–one of the rotations is the “technology” station. As a result, digital devices are often used for low-level practice. Now, I’m not saying that apps don’t provide engaging practice or that the practice isn’t needed. I’m just saying that students should be doing more with technology than just using it as glorified flashcards. By integrating technology into workstations, it can be used by students to create, rather than just consume. More on that in the next post in this series.

Take the teacher out of the rotation

Many workshop models include the teacher as one of the rotations. This can be limiting in a couple of important ways.

  • It determines your group size. You want roughly equal groups rotating through your stations, so the students at your teacher table may not all have the same instructional needs. For example, say that your small group lesson is on place value, You may have two students in the class with significant gaps in place value understanding and three students that are extremely confident with that skill. But your class is 24 students, so you have four groups of six rotating. That means that you will have to group those two low students together with four other students with different needs, just to even out the groups. The same with the high kids. That really undermines the whole purpose for small group instruction.
  • It forces you to have homogeneous (similar ability) groups in your workstations. Because you want the students at your teacher table to have the same instructional needs, they also have to be in the same group for independent workstation groups–because you are one of the stations they rotate through. This gives you no flexibility to decide which students work well together and which don’t and compose your groups accordingly. It also means that your students never have the opportunity to work with students of different abilities.
  • It dictates the time you spend with each group. Because you are part of the rotation, each group gets exactly the same amount of time, whether they need it or not. By taking yourself out of the equation, you can pull groups for exactly the amount of time they need.

Fine-tuning your workshop model

There are many models for structuring math workshop. A very common one circulating right now is based on the acronym MATH. There are variations for what the letters stand for, but a widely-used version is Meet with teacher, At my seat, Technology, and Hands on. I would like to offer the variation, pictured below. Notice, first, that the teacher is no longer one of the rotations. Now the groups in the workstations can be heterogeneous, allowing more flexibility when creating groups. While the students are in workshop, the teacher pulls students as needed to the teacher table. So if she wants to pull two students, she does. The groups coming to the teacher table can be different sizes and can stay for different amounts of time. Next, the technology rotation is gone. Technology can be integrated into any of the workstations. Apps can be used in the H station to practice facts, but can also be used in the A or T stations for more creative purposes. Finally, do you see that the process standards are embedded in the structure? The A station focuses on problem-solving and thought-provoking problems. The T station is all about communication.

In our book, Guided Math Workshop, Laney Sammons and I included our own version of a workstation structure called GUIDE. It includes five stations, rather than four, but includes all of the principles I outlined above. You can download the cute letters for GUIDE here.


Regardless of the structure you use, remember that a few simple tweaks can pack a big punch. I would love to hear your comments about how you structure your math workshop! Read the second post in this series here.

See you on Twitter! @MathCoachCorner

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