Wednesday, July 23, 2014

#70Days Lead from the middle!

I read an excellent article today ... Why Do Americans Stink at Math?  Please, read it!

Several years ago I read the book, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences by John Allen Paulos.  It was interesting to see documented the very thing I had heard too many times.  Parents would say, "I was never good at math either.  I can't even balance my checkbook."  Not many people would admit to not being able to read the newspaper, but parent after parent would say they could not do simple arithmetic. Now my guess is those parents could do basic operations but they lacked confidence in mathematical understanding.

As teachers we tend to teach the way we were taught.  Parents are often quite comfortable when we do that.  In many ways our math instruction has not changed in the last 10, 20, 50 years.  Teaching rote algorithms, memorizing rules, applying them to routine exercises - these are standard practices in math classes.

So what is the concern?  Math is so much more than rote algorithms!  And our students need to understand numbers conceptually, able to manipulate them easily, make decisions involving number comfortably.

The author of the article today points back to the 1960s and "new math."  That was a prime opportunity for math instruction to make a shift but it did not.  Today it's the Common Core State Standards.  There is such furor over the CCSS that it makes one wonder if opponents have even read them.  Why wouldn't we want our children to be proficient in mathematical practices as described here:
  1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
  3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
  4. Model with mathematics.
  5. Use appropriate tools strategically.
  6. Attend to precision.
  7. Look for and make use of structure.
  8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.
These eight practices are in all grade levels; they are the backbone of the Common Core State Standards in mathematics.

The author points to teacher training as a primary culprit.  As I mentioned before, we teach as we have been taught.  Teachers are asked to implement new standards, to emphasize critical thinking and deep understanding of concepts when many of them admit - "math is not my thing."  In my early college days I told my advisor I wanted to teach elementary school.  At that time, the degree I would earn was in elementary education.  We also had to declare a minor.  When I said I wanted my minor in mathematics, she shook her head and said all elementary teachers need to minor in reading.  I was stubborn and insisted on studying math.  While I did take quite a few math classes, I took only one "methods" course in teaching math.  To be honest I don't remember much about that course. Today I hope pre-service teachers discuss number routines, number talks, making meaning using manipulatives, how to engage young students in math discourse and problem solving.

So what can be done?  As teacher leaders, we need to lead from the middle.  Every teacher needs a PLN - personal learning network.  Blogging and Twitter are the go-to platforms for just in time training!  Not only that they provide a safe place to write about the realities of the classroom, to ask for feedback, to share teaching ideas, and to learn new strategies.

If you are not already involved in the Math Twitter Blog-o-Sphere (MTBoS), I encourage you to visit this site, set up a Twitter account, and start a blog for the new school year. As you "meet" new teachers online, follow them on Twitter, read their blogs, even make comments.  Join a math chat!  Reach out ... ask for feedback.  You are not alone in your math teaching journey! Together we can change the headline ... "Why Do Americans EXCEL in Math!"

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