Educator Perspectives: Engagement Thrives When Students Own Their Math Learning

In each installment of our Educator Perspectives series, we interview teachers and administrators across the country who are engaging, motivating and challenging their students in unique ways. We share their obstacles, successes and strategies so we can build a community better prepared to mathematically equip all students.

Thomas Donahue is an educator with a long history of helping students thrive in the math classroom. He’s worked as a middle school and high school math and science teacher, curriculum designer, a founder and executive director for multiple charter schools, and was head of school at Montessori Institute of San Diego.

In line with Donahue’s passion for education, he currently helps design curriculum for the non-profit California Math & Science Challenge, and is president and chief designer at ActivatedReader, a vocabulary-powered reading software startup. Prior to starting Activated Reader, he ran workshops for teachers on setting up successful “Math Acceleration,” Cybersafety, and Project Based Learning programs.

Over his career, Donahue has tested and evaluated different methods of empowering students to take charge of their learning. We recently spent some time with him discussing the methods and procedures he’s created to motivate kids to actively engage with their math curriculum.

Math Wasn’t the Beginning, but the Next Challenge

After four years in science, Donahue wondered if he could duplicate the success he was seeing in his science labs to a math classroom. “Traditionally, many kids would say that math is their least favorite subject,” he says.

Donahue walked into his first math teaching assignment in the early 1990’s. He took over pre-algebra and algebra classes midyear, and noticed that the only tool being used was a textbook. “The math ability of my students ranged from ‘counting on fingers’ to ‘algebra equations are a breeze’ but they were all expected to learn from the same book,” he explains.

However, he did find three PCs in the back of the classroom and began researching what software was available to help students at different learning levels. What he found were math games on floppy disk, like Math Blaster.

“I started playing these games and I created ‘target scores’ that the kids had to hit to level up,” he says. He would help students discover their placement level, and then they would work to hit targets from there. “The kids went crazy with it, and it allowed me to personalize their math education.”

The practice games combined with Donahue’s targets were a hit - kids felt in charge of their own learning. “Students, many of whom received an ‘F’ in math during the first or second quarters, started coming in before school, during lunch and after school. It was a revelation.” The next year, Donahue started taking students to the school computer lab two days a week.

Everyone was working at a different level and nobody was afraid to ask for help.

-Thomas Donahue

Creating a Classroom Environment That Fosters Engagement

Donahue’s method of weaving software into learning curriculum was something he continued to use in the ensuing years. But the different math software programs were limited to helping children master basic skills and computation. It was still up to teachers, often too busy trying to get students through the math textbook, to develop conceptual or deep understanding. When his charter school began using ST Math in 2013, that all changed.

As someone had been designing visual goal setting and feedback systems for years, Donahue thought that “the unifying goal of always working to help JiJi the penguin cross the screen in ST Math, no matter what the math concept, was brilliant,” and that ST Math’s visual feedback system was first rate. “The students always have a sense of progress and momentum. That goes a long way toward explaining why ST Math is so successful across many different schools and districts.”

Although ST Math was a game-changer for Donahue, he knows that for the program to truly be effective, there is still a large role for administrators and teachers to play. “Schools often need help with two areas. The first is figuring out how to embed ST Math into school culture and goal setting systems to increase student engagement in school and at home. The second is discovering how to motivate teachers to play and understand every ST Math topic, and each game’s math learning goals for the grade they teach. This prepares them to integrate ST Math into their math instruction and to apply the concepts that students are mastering to other subjects.”

Drawing on his past experiences, years of classroom observation, and concepts from Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Donahue put together a checklist for designing ST Math “Progress Trees” that fosters student engagement, motivates teachers and families, and helps turn a math classroom into an “Active Learning Zone.”


Thomas has implemented these practices in classroom after classroom, and has seen student engagement consistently increase. “If you set these conditions up in the classroom, the kids will be happy,” he says. “They internalize the learning goals, take responsibility for their own success, and seek out help when they need it. They get into a ‘zone’ where they lose track of time and it is sometimes hard to get them to stop working!”

Bringing Parents Into the Equation

Beyond these five keys, Donahue is also an advocate for making sure parents and guardians know what’s going on in the classroom. He tracks ST Math progress in the individual classrooms of the schools he now advises, and when he notices that at home logins aren’t what they could be he encourages educators to improve home progress by:

  • Educating parents about the benefits of ST Math with resources like Dr. Matthew Peterson’s TEDx Talk and links to program results.
  • Giving parents copies of the ST Math “progress tree” tracker to print out and hang on their refrigerator.
  • Using teacher’s aides or classroom volunteers to target students who have not logged in at home and to teach them how to login from home on a school iPad.
  • Sending reminders to all parents periodically so that children who have logged in actually use their trackers and make good progress.

Donahue’s work to develop checklists, progress trackers and other implementation support resources shows the meaningful impact he believes software is making in and out of classrooms. “Once a school successfully embeds ST Math into their culture they will start to see students develop deeper conceptual understanding and math fluency at the same time. Then it’s up to teachers to take their students new abilities and help them apply them to real-world applications.”

To learn more about curriculum, teacher training and ongoing professional development ideas, visit his website here: mathsciencechallenge.org.

MIND would like to thank Thomas Donahue for sharing his perspective and his methodologies with us!

Kelsey Skaggs

About the Author

Kelsey Skaggs was the Communications Manager at MIND Education. She enjoys highlighting the work of colleagues and partners who champion MIND's mission.


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