Improving Math Education
- "The reason most kids don't like school is not that the work is too hard, but that it is utterly boring." (Seymour Papert)
- "If you don't know where you are going, you're likely to end up somewhere else." (Lawrence J. Peter, of "Peter's Principles" fame.)
This document is intended for all people who have an interest in improving our math education system. However, it is specifically targeted toward preservice and inservice teachers, and their teachers.
The message in this document can be summarized by the statement: They, we, and you can improve our math education system.
The task of improving our math education system is so large, that it will take they, we, and you working together to make significant progress. Rest assured that you are not alone in your desired to help improve math education. For example, the Center for Proficiency in Teaching Math is a valuable resource for people working to improve math education. This National Science Foundation-funded center is one of a number of Centers for Learning and Teaching. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) is a large professional society dedicated to improving math education.
- For Reflection and Discussion. This document contains a number of For Reflection and Discussion inserts. These are designed for use in a workshop or a course that covers the topic of improving math education. Many readers will find it beneficial to reflect on possible answers to the questions. Here is a question to get you started. What are several things that you expect to learn by reading this document? In educationalize, such a question is an advance organizer. It gets your mind working on where you are now and where you want to go.
- For Reflection and Discussion. Consider the following quote: "Be the change you want to see in the world" (Mahatma Gandhi; 1869—1948.) Introspect on what this might mean in terms of what you, personally, can do to improve math education. This quote focuses on the "you" parts of the they, we, and you that need to work together to improve our math education system.
What is Math?
To understand some of fundamental issues in discussions about improving math education, one needs to have an understanding of what math is and why it is so important to people in our Information Age world. This section provide a brief answer to the question, "What is math?" To get your mind headed in that direction, reread the two quotes at the beginning of this section.
Presumably all readers of this document have studied math for many years, beginning well be before they started school, and probably continuing on into at least some college math. So, each of you have your own ideas on what math is. Perhaps for you, the number line is an important part of math. Perhaps in your mind's eye you can "see" the integers "stretching" from far to the left on this line, passing through -2, -1, 0, 1, 2 and continuing far to the right on this line. You can "see" fractions, and you know something about other numbers on the line that are called irrational. You know about doing arithmetic on the numbers of the number line. You know about some special categories of numbers, such as odd and even integers, prime numbers, and so on. For you, the number line is a rich source of interesting, fun aspects of math.
When I have my "math educator hat" on, I enjoy asking people to tell me what math is. I have asked this question of a wide range of children and adults—including teachers. I get a very wide variety of answers. Most include some statement about numbers and solving math problems.
Think about how you would answer the question if:
- The question was asked by students at various grade levels. For example, what would you say to a 2nd grader, versus what would you say to an 8th grader?
- What would you say to parents and other adults?
- What would you say to a preservice math teacher who is preparing to teach in elementary school, middle school, or high school?
I find it quite a challenge to create useful, honest answers. Let's take the situation of what we want a preservice math teacher to know. Is it helpful for this person to memorize Kronecker's statement, "God created the natural numbers; all the rest is the work of man."
I find that even Kronecker's simple statement is an intellectual challenge. Does "natural number" mean "integer?" (No.) Is zero one of the natural numbers? (No.) Is the number zero the same as "nothing?" (No.) Do the words "number" and "numeral" mean the same thing? (No.)
Many years ago, I memorized the statement, "Algebra is the language of mathematics." I wonder what that really is intended to mean? Recently I thought about math as a language, and I developed a Web page titled Communicating in the language of mathematics. There I explore ideas such as learning to read, write, speak, listen, and think in the "language" of mathematics. I enjoy exploring such questions, and then sharing my insights with others.
Many people have attempted to provide simple answers to the question, "What is mathematics?" They face a fundamental difficulty in communicating their answers because it tends to take considerable knowledge of math in order to understand their answers. An answer is generally developed in order to communicate to a particular group of people and for a specific purpose.
For example, consider the following materials quoted from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics:
- Attaining the vision laid out in Principles and Standards will not be easy, but the task is critically important. We must provide our students with the best mathematics education possible, one that enables them to fulfill personal ambitions and career goals in an ever changing world.
- Principles and Standards for School Mathematics has four major components. First, the Principles for school mathematics reflect basic perspectives on which educators should base decisions that affect school mathematics. These Principles establish a foundation for school mathematics programs by considering the broad issues of equity, curriculum, teaching, learning, assessment, and technology.
- Following the Principles, the Standards for school mathematics describe an ambitious and comprehensive set of goals for mathematics instruction. The first five Standards present goals in the mathematical content areas of number and operations, algebra, geometry, measurement, and data analysis and probability. The second five describe goals for the processes of problem solving, reasoning and proof, connections, communication, and representation. Together, the Standards describe the basic skills and understandings that students will need to function effectively in the twenty-first century. [Bold added for emphasis.]
The NCTM focus is specifically on math education. Notice the last line of the quoted material. The NCTM wants students to get a math education that will serve their needs in the 21st century. When you read such a statement, do you think about who will decide what will serve the future needs of students? Who, among us, is such a good futurist that he or she can determine and then effectively teach for these future needs?
Here is a still different approach to discussing what math is. George Polya was a 20th century world class mathematician and math educator. The Goals of Mathematical Education is a 1969 talk that he gave to a group of elementary school teachers. Quoting from his talk:
- To understand mathematics means to be able to do mathematics. And what does it mean doing mathematics? In the first place it means to be able to solve mathematical problems. For the higher aims about which I am now talking are some general tactics of problems—to have the right attitude for problems and to be able to attack all kinds of problems, not only very simple problems, which can be solved with the skills of the primary school, but more complicated problems of engineering, physics and so on, which will be further developed in the high school. But the foundations should be started in the primary school. And so I think an essential point in the primary school is to introduce the children to the tactics of problem solving. Not to solve this or that kind of problem, not to make just long divisions or some such thing, but to develop a general attitude for the solution of problems
In this statement, Polya is talking both about problem solving throughout the field of math, and also about use of math in solving problems in other disciplines. He is also talking about “the right attitude and to be able to attack all kinds of problems.” This statement is about math maturity, rather than about knowledge of any specific math content.
Thus, although he does not specifically address the question of what is math, Polya tells us what he believes math education should be. Math education should focus on helping students get better at solving math problems.
The diagram below captures the essence of many different math problem-solving situations. So, math is a discipline of study in which one learns to solve (math) problems. If the instruction and learning are well done, learning to solve math problems carries over to dealing with a wide range of problems from other disciplines. Indeed, math is important partly because it is so useful in helping to represent and solve problems in many different disciplines.
When I talk about math problem solving, I like to use the following diagram:
- Problem posing and problem recognition to produce a clearly defined problem;
- Mathematical modeling;
- Using a computational or algorithmic procedure to solve a computational or algorithmic math problem;
- Mathematical "unmodeling";
- Thinking about the results to see if the Clearly-defined Problem has been solved; and
- Thinking about whether the original Problem Situation has been resolved. Steps 5 and 6 also involve thinking about related problems and problem situations that one might want to address or that are created by the process or attempting to solve the original Clearly-Defined Problem or resolve the original Problem Situation.
In steps 1 and 2 a person works to understand a problem situation and makes a decision as to whether it might be useful to attempt to solve the problem using math. A person deciding to take a math-oriented approach to resolving the problem situation attempts to represent or model the problem situation using the language of mathematics. This math modeling leads to having a math problem that may of may not be solvable, and that may or may not be solvable by the person attempting to solve the problem.
In step 6, the person who has a solution to the math problem extracted when dealing with Step 1 checks the degree to which the results achieved are relevant to the original problem situation and decides whether the overall process has been useful in trying to resolve the original problem situation.
The great majority of K-14 math education is focused on students learning to do step 3 using paper and pencil algorithms. Step 3 is what calculators and computers are best at. Thus, the great majority of math education at the K-14 levels is spent helping students learn to compete with calculators and computers in areas that are not well suited to the capabilities of a human mind but that are well suited to computers.
- For Reflection and Discussion. Carefully examine your own personal position on use helping students learn to use calculators and computers to do Step 3 in the math problem-solving diagram given above. In this assessment, think about what gaining speed and accuracy in by-hand (pencil and paper) in doing Step 3 contributes to a student's understanding of math and of math problem solving. Give arguments for and against allowing students to use calculators and computers in doing math homework, math in-class seat work, and on math tests.
Students vary tremendously in how long it takes the to gain speed and accuracy in using pencil and paper to do the types of calculations and procedures that computers can do. A fundamental issue in math education is how much emphasis should be placed on having students to develop such speed and accuracy. This is part of what the Math Education Wars are about.
Here is still another approach that can be used as one explores the "what is math" question. Math is a very old, deep, and broad academic discipline and human endeavor. Each academic discipline can be defined by a combination of general things such as:
- The types of problems, tasks, and activities it addresses.
- Its accumulated accomplishments, including results, achievements, products, performances, scope, power, uses, impact on the societies of the world, and so on.
- Its history, culture, language, and other modes of communication—including notation, special vocabulary, and gestures.
- Its methods of teaching, learning, assessment, and thinking. This includes what it does to preserve and sustain its work and pass it on to future generations.
- Its tools, methodologies, and types of evidence and arguments used in solving problems, accomplishing tasks, and recording and sharing accumulated results.
- The knowledge and skills that separate and distinguish among people with varying levels of expertise in the discipline, such as (a) a novice, (b) a local or regional expert, and (c) a national or world-class expert.
Thus, one can examine each of the bulleted items from a math and math education point of view. You can self-assess on your personal strengths and weaknesses in the general areas that are listed. You can compare and contrast your understanding of the discipline of math versus your understanding of other disciplines.You can think about what aspects of the discipline of math various of your students might want to learn better than other aspects.
Here are some links to additional answers to the question, "What is math?"
- For Reflection and Discussion. Select some age group of students, such as fifth grade. What do they think math is? Then, do the same thing for "typical" adults. What insights does this activity give you into the current success of our math education system?
- For Reflection and Discussion. Think back over your own studies of math. Were did you receive explicit instruction on the topic "math modeling?" If you asked various students and adults what they think math modeling is, what kinds of answers do you expect you woulds receive?
The Problem of Change
- "Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, 'We've always done it this way.' I try to fight that. That's why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise." (Grace Hopper, computer scientist and computer educator, 1906—1992.)
- "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." (Charles Darwin; 1809—1882.)
Math education has carved out a large niche in our overall educational system. It is one of the "big three"—reading, writing, and arithmetic. It has long been accepted that basic literacy and numeracy are core to a decent education.
Over time, it has become clear that arithmetic is too narrow a term. This represents a major change in math education. For example, even in the earliest years of schooling, we want students to learn about measurement, pre-algebra, geometry, data gathering and analysis, searching for and representing mathematical patterns, and so on. So, let's agree to use the term math rather than arithmetic as we explore ways to improve our math education system, even at the lower grade levels. Arithmetic computation is only part of what math education is about, even in the PreK-5 grade levels.
Many people assert that our math education system is not as good as it could or should be. Of course, this type of assertion is not unique to math education. Each component of our informal and formal educational system is open to analysis, criticism, and suggestions for improvement. This is and should be an ongoing process, because our world is changing. The educational needs of people are changing.
There are many change agents in our world. For example, increasing population and increasing consumption contribute to a problem of sustainability. This is a huge and growing problem that faces all of us.
Technology of all sorts is a powerful change agent. Perhaps the current "big three" in this area are the science and technology of genes, nanotechnology, and Information and Communication Technology (ICT).
In terms of math education, ICT—which includes computers—is part of the force for change. For many years, the amount of "compute power" that one can buy for a dollar has been doubling in less than two years, and this pace of change seems likely to continue for quite a few years into the future. As compared to the first commercially-produced computers in the early 1950s, today's microcomputers are a billion times more cost effective.
Moreover, computer systems are getting "smarter"—their level of artificial intelligence is increasing. Thus, computer systems can solve a wide range of the math-related problems that previously people worked to solve using by-hand methods and tools that are much less powerful than today's and tomorrow's computers and other ICT facilities.
In summary, our math education system needs to appropriately educate students for life in a world that faces major and continuing problems and change. Computers and other ICT are a major change agent in math and math education.
- For Reflection and Discussion. Give some examples of where it seems to you possible (reasonable, likely, worth exploring) that changes in technology have changed what students need to be learning in math.
The Problem, More Carefully Stated
- "All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem." (Martin Luther King Jr., 1926–1968.)
In a clearly defined problem, there is a a clearly defined initial situation and a clearly defined goal. It is not enough to say that our current math education system is not as good as we would like it to be, and that the goal is to make it better.
Instead, we need to have good and clear information on the current status of our math education system, and we need clear goals. As we struggle to get a good understanding of the current status of our math education system, we begin to appreciate that we are faced by an immense, complex problem situation. As we struggle to set goals, our understanding of the complexity of the challenge grows.
- For example, if the criterion is "Students should be able to correctly add two single-digit numbers," then reasonable test questions might look like "2 + 3 = ?" or "9 + 5 = ?" A criterion-referenced test would report the student's performance strictly according to whether or not the individual student correctly answered these questions. A norm-referenced test would report primarily whether this student correctly answered more questions compared to other students in the group.
It is easy to make up a test and see how a group of students perform in comparison to each other. Indeed, the test can be used with different groups, so some sort of comparison can be made among the groups.
But, what questions should one put on the test? It is difficult to make up a math test where there is wide agreement on the specific topics and questions on the test. It is also difficult to make up a test that is fair to all the test takers, reliable, and valid. Here is a short quote from the linked article:
- Test takers often have limited options in when, how, or why they are taking the test, and may feel victimized in the process. The purpose of this paper is to focus on the test taker and to consider how all parties in the test process (test sponsor, test developer, test administrator, and test taker) have a role to play in ensuring fair testing practices and valid test results.
Notice the emphasis on the test taker. People trying to improve math education often forget the goal of helping students to gain increased, appropriate knowledge and skills in learning, and using math, now and in the future.
Thus, for example, we can make up a paper and pencil arithmetic computation test that contains problems such as 387 x 2593 and 693/87. We can administer the test to students throughout the world. Then we can make statements about the mean and standard deviation of test scores for different groups of students in different countries.
However, who cares whether students can do such paper and pencil calculations relatively rapidly and accurately? "Ah, there's the rub." What criterion does one use in a criterion-referenced test? If a specific teacher or school system knows the criterion and teaches quite specifically to the criteria, the teacher's or school district's students are apt to score high as compared to students whose education is not specific to the criteria.
This would likely be good, if there was good understanding and widespread agreement of what constituted "the" right things to know and be able to do in math. However, this is an impossible task. Consider, for example, cultural differences, differences in standards of living, differences in tools that can aid one in doing math, differences in natural math ability, differences in interest level, and so on. Math education cannot be a "one size fits all."
Let's take a more complex example. The ideas variable, function, and equation are very important concepts in math. As math educators, we want students to gain some understanding of these topics. What should we teach about them, and how should we measure the nature and extent of student understanding that comes from this teaching? Are these universally important math concepts so that it is reasonable and fair to measure the quality of a school, school district, state, national math education system by a criterion-referenced test on these topics?
Well… let simplify the situation. Consider a quadratic (polynomial) function of one variable and its associated quadratic equation. We now have a much simpler environment in which to explore variable, function, and equation. In this environment we can explore real and complex variables, factoring, graphing by hand, completing the square to solve a quadratic equation, use of the quadratic formula to solve a quadratic equation, graphing using a calculator or computer, maximum and minimum values of the function, and solving an equation using a calculator or a computer. We can study uses of quadratic functions and of solving quadratic equation, both in the discipline of math and in other disciplines. Clearly, this is a potentially very rich teaching and learning environment.
What do we want students to learn, and how can we assess this learning in a criterion-referenced manner? Will the criteria we pick be appropriate to the specific student or group of students being tested?
How long will various parts of this learning be retained? This is called long term residual impact. The big three in terms of assessment are formative assessment, summative assessment, and long term residual impact assessment. Thus, for example, what is the typical adult's understanding of "mathematical variable" two years or more after she or he is no longer in school? Quoting from the Encyclopaedia of Technical and Vocational Education:
- Goal 13: Formative, summative, and residual impact evaluation. Implementation plans for information technology shall be evaluated on an ongoing basis, using formative, summative, and residual impact evaluation techniques. Formative evaluation provides information for mid-programme corrections. It is conducted as programs are being implemented. Summative evaluation provides information about the results of a programme after it has been completed, such as a particular staff development programme, a particular program of loaning computers to students for use at home, and so on. Residual impact evaluation looks at programs in retrospect, perhaps a year or more after a program has ended.
As we think about improving our math education system, we need to think in terms of the long term residual impact of the many hours of schooling that focus on math education. What can the curriculum content, teaching process, and assessment process do to help prepare students for their math needs in the future? What can we do to facilitate and promote transfer of learning, both to areas outside the math class and to a student's future math needs?
- For Reflection and Discussion. Select a math idea that you consider to be very important, such as variable or function. Think about what the idea means to you from a math point of view. Then think about what the idea means to a typical adult from a math point of view. Finally, think about what you would like a typical adult to understand about variable, function, and other really math "big ideas." Are these ideas carefully and clearly taught in school in a manner so that there will a high level of long-term residual impact? What could be done in school to increase the long-term residual impact of student learning of these ideas?
The Major Stakeholders
- "Adults are obsolete children." (Dr. Seuss; Theodor Seuss Geisel, American writer, 1904–1991.)
- Leadership: The art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it." (Dwight D. Eisenhower, thirty-fourth U.S. president, 1890–1969.)
It has become relatively common to talk about student-centered education. Clearly, students are the most important stakeholder group in our math education system. We need a math education system that prepares students to meet their own math education needs now and in the future.
However, the math education system includes many other stakeholder groups. Some play major leadership roles in trying to improve our math education system. Examples include parents, teachers, school administrator, school boards, state and federal educational agencies, state and federal governments, and employers. There are so many stakeholder groups, and they have such diverse points of view, that it is very difficult to get all or most to work together in a collaborative manner.
This document cannot be the "be all, end all" for the complex problem of improving our educational system. Remember, the specific focus is on preservice and inservice teachers, and the teachers of these teachers. The specific suggestions given later in this document are targeted specifically toward these stakeholder groups.
However, we need more general background before looking at possible specific things that preservice and inservice teachers, and the teachers of these teachers, might be doing.
- For Reflection and Discussion. In your opinion, who are the one or two most powerful stakeholder groups in math education? How does this situation affect the quality of our math education system?
Two Thought-Provoking Question Areas
- "When people cannot see the need for what’s being taught, they ignore it, reject it, or fail to assimilate it in any meaningful way. Conversely, when they have a need, then, if the resources for learning are available, people learn effectively and quickly." (Brown & Duguid, 2000.)
Here are two challenging and thought-provoking math education question areas that are relevant to people of all ages. Begin by asking yourself the questions and forming mental answers. Then, in the future, explore how other people of all ages think about and answer these questions.
- 1. Can you do and use math at a level that meets your personal current needs and the current expectations you have for yourself? What about needs and expectations you believe you may have in the future? This is a question related to intrinsic motivation.
- 2. Can do and use math at a level that meets the current needs and expectations of various stakeholder groups such as parents, our schooling system, potential employers, politicians, our government, and so on? What about needs and expectations that you are likely to have in the future? This is a question related to extrinsic motivation.
These are student-centered questions that focus on being able to "do and use" math to meet one's personal needs and the needs of others. They concern now and the future. They concern intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. They concern helping students learning to self-assess their own education. Wow! That is a lot to think about.
One way to increase your insights into these questions is to think about the same questions for the other two basics of education—reading and writing. You and your students can gain an increased level of expertise in self-assessment. Reading, writing, and math provide an opportunity to do a compare and contrast in self-assessment. Teachers can ask themselves: "Am I teaching in a manner so that my students are learning to self-assess?" ""Can my students clearly see the progress they are making and how this progress is of value to them, both now and in the future?"
The two question areas tend to emphasize intrinsic motivation on the part of the learner versus extrinsic motivation being provided (or, forced) by those with an interest in or stake in the student learning. The issue of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation is a challenge. For many students and teachers, our math education system (as well as other parts of schooling) tends to become a battleground. As you think about ways to improve our math education system, think about ways that will help reduce the confrontation (battle) between students and their teachers. Other battles include parents versus the their children or their children's teachers, and politicians versus school systems.
- For Reflection and Discussion. Self-assessment is a very important to learners, whether they are learning in a school setting or on their own in an informal learning environment. Thing about your experiences in helping yourself and others to learn in informal and formal math settings. How much emphasis was placed on learning how to do self-assessment and to take increased responsibility for one's own learning? What could have been done to help you get better at self-assessment in math?
- For Reflection and Discussion. As you teach and/or in other ways help others to learn, how much emphasis do you place on intrinsic motivation of the learner, and how much emphasis do you place on you and others providing strong extrinsic motivation? Give some examples to help clarify your point of view on this topic.
This student-centered approach to assessing the effectiveness of our math education suggests one possible way to improve math education. The suggestion is, help students to understand the current and possible future math education needs, and help them learn to self-assess their knowledge, skills, and use of their math education.
A student-centered approach to education places considerable importance on helping students to become intrinsically motivated and to act upon their intrinsic motivations. Of course, this raises an interesting question. What is the relationship between externally encouraging, inspiring, and in other ways cajoling students, and students having or developing intrinsic motivation?
Five Types of Math Education Goals
- "An individual understands a concept, skill, theory, or domain of knowledge to the extent that he or she can apply it appropriately in a new situation." (Howard Gardner, The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand, Simon & Schuster, 1999.)
This statement from Howard Gardner is applicable to a person's expertise in any discipline. Roughly speaking, it divides education into two categories: 1) learning with understanding, in a manner that allows one to tackle new problems situations; and 2) learning without understanding, which only allows one to solve the specific problems that one has previously encountered and studied. Very roughly speaking, the first type of learning is called "education" while the second type is called "training." Both are an important part of schooling. The challenge is getting an appropriate balance to fit the needs of widely varying students who are studying a wide range of disciplines.
In improving math education, we need to think about current math education goals along with possible deletions and additions to such lists. Here are five general types of math education goals:
A stakeholder group, state government, state organization, national government,national organization, or international organization draws up a list of math topic-based and performance-based standards. For example, see the work of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Math educators want students to have and to continually demonstrate a positive attitude in their knowledge and skills in learning and using math. Math educators are unhappy when they hear an adult claim, "I can't do math and I hated math when I was in school."
3. Math cognitive development
Math educators want students to make steady progress in moving up a math cognitive developmental scale, such as a Piagetian math cognitive developmental scale. The ultimate goal is to get a large percentage of students to function at a formal operations cognitive developmental level in math. Examples of math cognitive development scales are available in Moursund, D.G. (June 2006). Computational Thinking and Math Maturity: Improving Math Education in K-8 Schools. Access at http://i-a-e.org/ebooks/doc_download/3-computational-thinking-and-math-maturity-improving-math-education-in-k-8-schools.html.
The following scale was created (sort of from whole fabric) by David Moursund. It represents his current insights into a six-level, Piagetian-type, math cognitive development scale. Note that the first four levels correspond to the traditional Piagetian stage theory. The last two levels can be considered as postformal stages. Quoting from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piaget%27s_theory_of_cognitive_development:
|Stage & Name||Math Cognitive Developments|
|Level 1. Piagetian and Math sensorimotor. Birth to age 2.||Infants use sensory and motor capabilities to explore and gain increasing understanding of their environments. Research on very young infants suggests some innate ability to deal with small quantities such as 1, 2, and 3. As infants gain crawling or walking mobility, they can display innate spatial sense. For example, they can move to a target along a path requiring moving around obstacles, and can find their way back to a parent after having taken a turn into a room where they can no longer see the parent.|
|Level 2. Piagetian and Math preoperational. Age 2 to 7.|| During the preoperational stage, children begin to use symbols, such as speech. They respond to objects and events according to how they appear to be. The children are making rapid progress in receptive and generative oral language. They accommodate to the language environments (including math as a language) they spend a lot of time in, so can easily become bilingual or trilingual in such environments.
During the preoperational stage, children learn some folk math and begin to develop an understanding of number line. They learn number words and to name the number of objects in a collection and how to count them, with the answer being the last number used in this counting process.
A majority of children discover or learn “counting on” and counting on from the larger quantity as a way to speed up counting of two or more sets of objects. Children gain increasing proficiency (speed, correctness, and understanding) in such counting activities.
In terms of nature and nurture in mathematical development, both are of considerable importance during the preoperational stage.
|Level 3. Piagetian and Math concrete operations. Age 7 to 11.|| During the concrete operations stage, children begin to think logically. In this stage, which is characterized by 7 types of conservation: number, length, liquid, mass, weight, area, volume, intelligence is demonstrated through logical and systematic manipulation of symbols related to concrete objects. Operational thinking develops (mental actions that are reversible).
While concrete objects are an important aspect of learning during this stage, children also begin to learn from words, language, and pictures/video, learning about objects that are not concretely available to them.
For the average child, the time span of concrete operations is approximately the time span of elementary school (grades 1-5 or 1-6). During this time, learning math is somewhat linked to having previously developed some knowledge of math words (such as counting numbers) and concepts.
However, the level of abstraction in the written and oral math language quickly surpasses a student’s previous math experience. That is, math learning tends to proceed in an environment in which the new content materials and ideas are not strongly rooted in verbal, concrete, mental images and understanding of somewhat similar ideas that have already been acquired.
There is a substantial difference between developing general ideas and understanding of conservation of number, length, liquid, mass, weight, area, and volume, and learning the mathematics that corresponds to this. These tend to be relatively deep and abstract topics, although they can be taught in very concrete manners.
|Level 4. Piagetian and Math formal operations. After age 11.|| Starting at age 11 or 12, or so, thought begins to be systematic and abstract. In this stage, intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts, problem solving, and gaining and using higher-order knowledge and skills.
Math maturity supports the understanding of and proficiency in math at the level of a high school math curriculum. Beginnings of understanding of math-type arguments and proof.
Piagetian and Math formal operations includes being able to recognize math aspects of problem situations in both math and non-math disciplines, convert these aspects into math problems (math modeling), and solve the resulting math problems if they are within the range of the math that one has studied. Such transfer of learning is a core aspect of Level 4.
Level 4 cognitive development can continue well into college, and most students never fully achieve Level 4 math cognitive development. (This is because of some combination of innate math ability and not pursuing cognitively demanding higher level math courses or equivalent levels on their own.)
|Level 5. Abstract mathematical operations. Moving far beyond math formal operations.||Mathematical content proficiency and maturity at the level of contemporary math texts used at the upper division undergraduate level in strong programs, or first year graduate level in less strong programs. Good ability to learn math through some combination of reading required texts and other math literature, listening to lectures, participating in class discussions, studying on your own, studying in groups, and so on. Solve relatively high level math problems posed by others (such as in the text books and course assignments). Pose and solve problems at the level of one’s math reading skills and knowledge. Follow the logic and arguments in mathematical proofs. Fill in details of proofs when steps are left out in textbooks and other representations of such proofs.|
|Level 6. Mathematician.||A very high level of mathematical proficiency and maturity. This includes speed, accuracy, and understanding in reading the research literature, writing research literature, and in oral communication (speak, listen) of research-level mathematics. Pose and solve original math problems at the level of contemporary research frontiers.|
The age ranges in a general-purpose Piagetian cognitive developmental scale are approximate, with significant variations due to nature and nurture. The variation is likely much larger still for math cognitive development. General cognitive development is "thinking" development, and it does not refer to any specific knowledge and skills in particular areas, while math cognitive development refers to math-like and math logic-like thinking, and is dependent on making progress in learning and thinking in the language of mathematics.
- For Reflection and Discussion. It is relatively easy to compare the specific basic math knowledge and skills of two students. There, one focuses on specific topics that the two have likely encountered in school. How does one go about comparing the math cognitive development of two students? Organize your own thoughts on this question, and compare/contrast with some of your colleagues.
4. Math maturity
It is helpful to think of math maturity as a mathematician's way of talking about math cognitive development. Math educators want their students to steadily gain in the level of math maturity. The term is most often used at an upper high school or college level. Often it is used to help describe the prerequisites for a course in computer science or mathematics . The prerequisite is more than just having passed certain math courses. It is being to learn math, think mathematically, and solve math-related problems at a level that depends on understanding and making relatively fluent use of math.
Quoting from the Wikipedia: "Mathematical maturity is a loose term used by mathematicians that refers to a mixture of mathematical experience and insight that cannot be directly taught, but instead comes from repeated exposure to complex mathematical concepts." Still quoting from the Wikipedia, other aspects of mathematical maturity include:
- the capacity to generalize from a specific example to broad concept
- the capacity to handle increasingly abstract ideas
- the ability to communicate mathematically by learning standard notation and acceptable style
- a significant shift from learning by memorization to learning through understanding
- the capacity to separate the key ideas from the less significant
- the ability to link a geometrical representation with an analytic representation
- the ability to translate verbal problems into mathematical problems
- the ability to recognize a valid proof and detect 'sloppy' thinking
- the ability to recognize mathematical patterns
- the ability to move back and forth between the geometrical (graph) and the analytical (equation)
- improving mathematical intuition by abandoning naive assumptions and developing a more critical attitude
- Quoting Larry Denenberg:
- Thirty percent of mathematical maturity is fearlessness in the face of symbols: the ability to read and understand notation, to introduce clear and useful notation when appropriate (and not otherwise!), and a general facility of expression in the terse—but crisp and exact—language that mathematicians use to communicate ideas. Mathematics, like English, relies on a common understanding of definitions and meanings. But in mathematics definitions and meanings are much more often attached to symbols, not to words, although words are used as well. Furthermore, the definitions are much more precise and unambiguous, and are not nearly as susceptible to modification through usage. You will never see a mathematical discussion without the use of notation!
Math Maturity Comment by David Moursund 3/18/09
From time to time I continue to think about math maturity. This morning I thought about four levels of knowing some math. This way of looking at things helps me to better understand what is meant by increasing math maturity.
- I know some memorized math facts, algorithms, and procedures. I can recognize some math problem situations in which I can apply these math facts, algorithms, and procedures. When I accurately identify such a situation and accurately apply my facts, algorithms, and procedures, I get a correct answer.
- I can recognize some math problem situations in which my memorized facts, algorithms, and procedures do not exactly fit. In some of these cases, I can break the problem situation into two or more sub problem situations (represent the original problem situation as two or more sub problem situations) that I can deal with using my memorized facts, algorithms, and procedures. This allows me to deal with some "unfamiliar" math problem situations.
- In a math problem situation that is not adequately handled by 1 and 2, I can sometimes figure out what I need to know and do in order to deal with the math problem situation. This may involve figuring out or looking up (finding from some source other than myself) some additional facts, algorithms, and procedures, and ways to use them.
- In math-related problem situations in disciplines other than math, I am steadily increasing my ability to do 1, 2, and 3.
I believe that math educators can learn something useful by thinking about a parallel between students learning reading and writing, and students learning math. In teaching reading and writing, there is a balance among the ideas 1-4 above that is quite a bit different than the balance achieved in teaching math. There are many reasons for this. One is that small errors in doing a sub part of a math problem typically lead to incorrect results in trying to solve the overall problem. Small errors in spelling, grammar, understanding the meaning of a word, and so on typically do not have such profoundly incorrect results.
- [This is an aside. I also find it helpful to compare and contrast math education with art education, music education, physical education, and so on in which learners can self-assess their levels of performance and can assess the levels of performance of their peers. What can math educators do to make this type of self and peer assessment receive more emphasis in math education? Would doing this improve math education?]
- That is, much of math is taught at a level of abstraction in which a student is not able to attach "real world" meaning and understanding. Much of reading and writing is not taught at such a level of abstraction. We do not expect children to read and write at the level of a professional lawyer!
- One of the really important aspects of math is its precision and very carefully applied logic. The importance of such precision and logical argument varies from discipline to discipline. It is, for example, quite important in the sciences, and we know that math is quite important in the sciences. In education, we have quantitative studies and qualitative studies. The former are more math-like and make more use of the types of precision and logical argument from math. The latter often better fit the "real world" nature of people, teachers, students, and our overall educational environment.
- These types of thoughts typically lead me back to cognitive development theory. My personal belief is that much of the math curriculum is taught at a level of abstraction and assumes a level of math cognitive development that is quite a bit above that of an average student. And, much of how we teach math is not well designed to improve the math cognitive developmental level of students.]]
5. Computers in math and math education
As noted earlier, computers are an important component of the math field and an aid to using math in many other disciplines. Computers are also an aid to teaching and learning math. Come of the key ideas are summarized under the heading of Computational Thinking. Others are discussed under the general idea of Two Brains are Better than One. Computers can solve a wide range of the types of problems that we currently teach students to solve using by-hand paper and pencil methods. In addition, ICT is a big help in distance learning and in accessing information.
As we work on ideas of how to improve math education, we need to consider all five categories of goals listed above. In addition, we need to figure out ways of assessing whether the changes we are thinking about making will lead to improvements in the math education of our students.
- For Reflection and Discussion. Many people claim that the typical adult understands and uses math at about the 6th to 7th grade level. This is the level of just beginning to move into Level 4, Formal Operations. Think about yourself and the adults you know. Argue for or against this "6th to 7th grade level" conjecture.
- For Reflection and Discussion. Here is a conjecture. Starting at about the sixth to seventh grade level, math education tends to be designed to "push the envelop" in terms of a student's level of math cognitive development or math maturity. Students with reasonably good natural ability in math, and who also are appropriately intrinsically and extrinsically motivated, tend to thrive in this environment. Many other students do not thrive in this environment. Based on your own insights into math education, argue for or against this conjecture.
The "I Can't Do Math" Phenomenon
- "We have met the enemy and he is us." (Walt Kelly, American cartoonist, 1913-1973; statement by comic strip character Pogo in 1970.)
- “When you are up to your neck in alligators, it's hard to remember the original objective was to drain the swamp." (Adage, unattributed.)
Let's continue with the question: "Can you do and use math at a level that meets your personal current needs and the current expectations you have for yourself?" Ideally, the great majority of students and adults who have been educated by our math education system would say "yes." We want and expect that our math education system will provide adequate and appropriate opportunities for most people to meet their personal math education needs and expectations.
However, many adults in the United States claim that they are not very good at math. Indeed, it is common to hear statements such as: "I was never much good at math;" "I can't do math;" and "I hate math." Such statement, however, do not necessarily mean that the respondents' math knowledge and skills do not meet their personal needs and expectations. It may well be that our math education system tends to be successful at meeting the math needs of a great majority of learners, but at the same time leaves many learners with a feeling or attitude that they can't do math or that they hate math.
Like many others, I have spent time thinking about the "I can't do math, I hate math" phenomenon. I have formed a number of conjectures that might help me and others to better understand this situation.
Here is an example of some thinking I have done. Some people are better at math than others, and some people have a greater interest in math than others. Math is but one of many disciplines that a student might study. Perhaps the standards that are being set are beyond what many students can achieve or beyond what they are intrinsically motivated to achieve? Perhaps the standards are well above what many students feel are their personal math knowledge and skill needs and expectations.
This type of thinking leads me to conjectures such as:
- Perhaps the average human brain is not up to the learning tasks specified in the various national and state math standards.
- Perhaps the amount of time devoted to the math teaching and learning task is inadequate to the teaching and learning task defined by state and national math standards.
- Perhaps the methods of instruction, the materials being used, the informal and formal instructional environments, the nature and extent of teacher preparation, and so on are not up to the task.
I am sure that many readers of this document can add to the list of conjectures. Each of these conjectures is a researchable question. If even one of these conjectures is correct, knowing this will be quite helpful as we work to improve our math education system.
The next three sub section explore these three conjectures.
Math Expectations Beyond Average Human Capabilities
- "Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!" (Lewis Carroll, pen name for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, English author, mathematician, logician, and photographer, 1832–1898.)
The undamaged human brain is genetically wired for learning some math and math-related knowledge and skills. For example, very young children have a little number sense, such as being able to distinguish between two of an object and three of an object. Toddlers readily learn to orient themselves in their spatial environment, finding their way around different parts of a house. Such spatial skills are essential to a hunter-gather life style in which people had to forage for food and then find their way back to their clan.
Now, think about a child learning words for numbers. As an example, I have a young grandson who is quite bright. He can say in order the words one, two, three, … up to about sixteen. However, his understanding of these words is quite limited. He has some working understanding of one and two, and perhaps three. There is a large difference between being to say words and having an understanding of that they mean. This, of course, is true for both math words and non-math words.
By the time an average child enters the first grade, the child has developed a reasonable level of skill in using the number counting words to be able to say the number of objects in a small set. The child can do simple additions, such as 2 + 5 through a process of counting. Quite a few children have learned counting on either through their own discovery or through being explicitly taught by the time they begin the first grade.
There has been a reasonable amount of research on the math knowledge and skills of unschooled "street urchin" kids and on craftspeople who need to use some math in their work. They tend to develop the money-related, measurement-related, and other necessary math-related skills to survive and function in their environment.
The types of observations given above support the idea that students are capable of learning quite a bit of math. In terms of street urchins and craftspeople, the evidence is that they learn the math they need to use to solve the math-related problems they face.
Gene Maier's article on Folk Math gives interesting examples and argues that perhaps much of the math we are teaching in our schools today is irrelevant to the lives of most students.
American Diploma Project Algebra II End-Of-Course Exam: 2008 Annual Report discusses a new attempt to determine how well students are learning Algebra II. Quoting from the report:
- In the spring of 2008, nearly ninety thousand students across twelve of the fourteen states in the partnership took the ADP Algebra II end-of-course exam for the first time. This report, released as the scores from the first administration are reported to students, their teachers andtheir parents, provides an overview of the test as well as exam results from each of the participating states. Most states offered the test on a pilot basis this year, giving many educators a first look at the expectations of a rigorous Algebra II course assessment. States are in the process of developing policies for the use of the test. and how it will fit into their still-evolving high school assessment and accountability systems. And while most of the states in the partnership require, or plan to require, students to take Algebra II in order to graduate, these new requirements are being phased in over time and do not apply to most of the students who took the exam this year. Consequently, this year’s participation rates in Algebra II courses and in the ADP end-of-course exam vary from state to state. Therefore, comparisons of state results are neither meaningful nor appropriate at this time.
The results of this test suggest a huge mismatch between what the testers think students should be able to do and what the students were actually able to do. Average scores for various groups of students on the Multiple Choice parts of the test were somewhat under 40%. Average scores on the Constructed Response part of the tests was 10.2%.
Ten point two percent! My reaction was, "You have got to be kidding." I wonder what the exam makers thought about that!
- For Reflection and Discussion. Think about the math that an average person uses in their everyday life. What parts of this can be "picked up" in a learn by doing mode, learning from one's peers, colleagues, and fellow workers, versus what parts require formal schooling?
- For Reflection and Discussion. What are your personal thoughts about the results on the Algebra II report discussed above?
Likely you are somewhat familiar with various theories of Multiple Intelligence. Howard Gardner is well know for his work in this area. Logical/mathematical is one of the eight areas of intelligence that he has identified.
People vary considerably in their "Math IQ," including how well and how fast they learn math, and how well they can use the math they have studied. Thus, the bottom five percent of students in our schools, measured in terms of math IQ, learn math at less than half as fast as average students, tend to learn it poorly, and tend to peak out at about a 4th to 5th grade level or at a still lower grade level. On the other end of the math learning scale are a group of approximately the same size that learn math at least twice as fast and a lot better than average students. Some of them go on to get doctorates in math and/or go into careers that make good use of math knowledge and skills.
This type of data leads me to ask about the possible areas and levels of math expertise we can expect from a student with average Math IQ. This question is not easily answered.
George Polya was both a great math researcher and a great math educator. Here is a quote from a talk he gave to elementary school teachers. It identifies a central area for math expertise.
- To understand mathematics means to be able to do mathematics. And what does it mean doing mathematics? In the first place it means to be able to solve mathematical problems. For the higher aims about which I am now talking are some general tactics of problems—to have the right attitude for problems and to be able to attack all kinds of problems, not only very simple problems, which can be solved with the skills of the primary school, but more complicated problems of engineering, physics and so on, which will be further developed in the high school. But the foundations should be started in the primary school. And so I think an essential point in the primary school is to introduce the children to the tactics of problem solving. Not to solve this or that kind of problem, not to make just long divisions or some such thing, but to develop a general attitude for the solution of problems (Polya, circa 1969).
Notice the emphasis on problem solving—a higher-order cognitive activity. Polya was particularly interested in helping students learn to deal with challenging, novel problems. Sure, we can teach students the mechanics of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. However, that is a far cry from being able to understand, represent, solve, and understand complex problems that can be solve using the four basic arithmetic computational operations.
How does one educate students to solve novel problems they have not seen before? We know it is possible. However, we also know that students vary considerably in the interest in and ability to learn to solve novel, challenging math problems. For these and other reasons, our math education system has adopted standards that are far below what Polya would like.
Here is a personal story:
- Math educators know that it is easy to design math problem-solving tests that all but the most capable students will fail. Let me share a personal story on this. At the college level, there is a national Putnam Competition. It is a six hour math test consisting of 12 problems. I was a math major in college and a very good math student. I took the Putnam test during my junior and senior years. I don't remember the fine details, but my general memory is of being able to solve one problem each year, and to make some progress on a few of the other problems. In terms of the way the tests were graded, my scores were probably under 25%. Still, I suppose I ranked in the upper half of students taking the test. Evidently the problems are so hard that at least half of the students taking the test are unable to solve any problem correctly.
My conclusion is that if one sets math education standards based on being able to solve novel, challenging problems that are solvable with the math that one has studied, almost all students would fail. Since such a level of failure is not a good way to design and run a school system, math standards are set much lower than this level.
However, it is possible to teach specifically for gaining expertise in the types of problems used in the Putnam competition and in other national or international competitions. When I started teaching at Michigan State University shortly after having competed my doctorate in mathematics, I found that one of the faculty members searched out the best freshmen students with an interest in math, and put them into a rigorous problem-solving training program. The Michigan State University Putnam team consistently placed in the top ten in the country as a consequence of this approach.
In summary, if we take students who are talented and interested in math, and give them lots of special tutoring in small groups, we can produce some very high math performers. This approach to math education makes a school (or, country) look good in national and international competitions, but is not a good measure of the success of our overall math education system.
Another approach to whether math education expectations are being set too high is to look at research in cognitive development. Piaget is probably the best known name in the field of cognitive development, but many other researchers have worked on understanding the changes going on in a human brain as it moves toward maturity. The changes are a product of both nature and nurture. A combination of native ability along with good learning opportunities and environments produce research mathematicians and other people at excel in using math to help represent and solve problems in their careers.
My exploration of math cognitive development and our math curriculum suggests that there may be a large disconnect here. In brief summary, it appears that quite a bit of the math being taught starting about about the sixth or seventh grade is well above the math cognitive developmental level of a great many of the students. Areas falling into this category include percentage, ratio and proportion, geometry proofs, algebra, and probability.
I have written about this topic elsewhere. For example, see:
- Moursund, D.G. (June 2006). Computational Thinking and Math Maturity: Improving Math Education in K-8 Schools. Access at http://i-a-e.org/ebooks/doc_download/3-computational-thinking-and-math-maturity-improving-math-education-in-k-8-schools.html.
This mismatch between math education expectations and math cognitive development leads to many students taking a memorize with little or no understanding, regurgitate, and forget approach to learning math. It helps to explain some adult statements about their math education.
Math educators have long realized that a moderately rigorous high school geometry course tends to separate students into categories. In the "old" sexist days, the statement was often made that this course "separates the men from the boys."
Here is a Paigetian-type geometry cognitive development scale developed by Diana and Pierre van Hiele about 50 years ago. The layout and numbering in this scale is similar to that used in the Math Cognitive Developmental Scale earlier in this document. The van Hieles'did not have a sixth level on their scale.
|Stage & Name||Geometry Cognitive Developments|
|Level 1. (Visualization) Corresponds to Sensorimotor on a Piagetian scale.||Students recognize figures as total entities (triangles, squares), but do not recognize properties of these figures (right angles in a square).|
|Level 2. (Analysis) Corresponds to Concrete Operations on a Piagetian scale.||Students analyze component parts of the figures (opposite angles of parallelograms are congruent), but interrelationships between figures and properties cannot be explained.|
|Level 3. (Informal Deduction) Corresponds to Concrete Operations on a Piagetian scale.||Students can establish interrelationships of properties within figures (in a quadrilateral, opposite sides being parallel necessitates opposite angles being congruent) and among figures (a square is a rectangle because it has all the properties of a rectangle). Informal proofs can be followed but students do not see how the logical order could be altered nor do they see how to construct a proof starting from different or unfamiliar premises.|
|Level 4. (Deduction) Corresponds to Formal Operations on a Piagetian scale.||At this level the significance of deduction as a way of establishing geometric theory within an axiom system is understood. The interrelationship and role of undefined terms, axioms, definitions, theorems, and formal proof is seen. The possibility of developing a proof in more than one way is seen.|
|Level 5. (Rigor)||Students at this level can compare different axiom systems (non-Euclidean geometry can be studied). Geometry is seen in the abstract with a high degree of rigor, even without concrete examples.|
The work of the van Hieles' provided solid evidence that the traditional somewhat rigorous high school geometry course was over the heads of a great many high school students. The attempts at rigor and proof make such a course at the beginnings of Level 4. It may well be that this is above the level that about 2/3 of students reach by the time they finish high school.
Moreover, the same type of analysis can be applied to the situation of the "algebra for all" movement and trying to push younger and younger students into a rigorous algebra course. It appears that ratio and proportion, computations with and manipulation of fractions, and the abstraction of algebra are quite far about the math cognitive development level of many of the students we are trying to teach algebra to.
This math cognitive development mismatch between students and beginning beginning algebra and geometry courses is (in my opinion) a disaster for many students and their teachers. Many teachers realize that they cannot fail a large percentage of students in such courses. Thus, many math teachers are forced to "water down" these algebra and geometry courses so that most students can pass. It is common that this passing grade can be achieved through passing scores on single topic or very limited topics quizzes, doing extra credit activities, participation in class discussion, and other similar activities. The points gained in such activities may allow a student to fail every comprehensive test and still pass the course. Both the students and the teacher fall into a pattern of behavior based on the goal being that students pass the course rather than that students gain knowledge and skills that meet current and future personal needs and needs of potential employers.
There is another really important aspect of human mental capabilities. People forget much of what they learn in school. They forget content that they learn in a memorize and regurgitate mode. They forget material that they do not understand. They forget material that they do not use in their future. Some good research has been done in the area of forgetting and how to teach/learn to decrease the amount of forgetting. Here is an example:
- Rohrer, Doug and Pashler, Harold (2007). Increasing retention without increasing study time. Retrieved 2/18/08: http://www.pashler.com/Articles/RohrerPashler2007CDPS.pdf.
Quoting the abstract of this paper:
- Because people forget much of what they learn, students could beneﬁt from learning strategies that yield long-lasting knowledge. Yet surprisingly little is known about how long-term retention is most efficiently achieved. Here we examine how retention is affected by two variables: the duration of a study session and the temporal distribution of study time across multiple sessions. Our results suggest that a single session devoted to the study of some material should continue long enough to ensure that mastery is achieved but that immediate further study of the same material is an inefﬁcient use of time. Our data also show that the beneﬁt of distributing a ﬁxed amount of study time across two study sessions—the spacing effect—depends jointly on the interval between study sessions and the interval between study and test. We discuss the practical implications of both ﬁndings, especially in regard to mathematics learning.
I found this paper particularly interesting because it addresses the issue of forgetting. Students "forget" most of what is covered in their math courses. Since we know this, it behooves us to address the issue. At the current time, our math education system is doing a poor job of addressing this challenging problem.
Inadequate Time: Breadth Versus Depth
- "The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom." (Isaac Asimov, Russian-born American author and biochemist, 1920–1992.)
Even in a single discipline such as math, there is far more content knowledge than a person can learn in a lifetime. The collected math content is growing quite rapidly. Thus, we need to be wise in our selection of what math we put into the math curriculum at various grade levels.
We know that if more time is devoted to math education and if students are taught by highly qualified math teachers in "reasonably sized" classes, average math performance can be substantially improved. There is quite a bit of research literature on the value of individual tutoring and small classes.
The essence of this situation is individualization both in content and in feedback. Constructivism is a theory focusing on how learners build new knowledge and skills based on their current knowledge and skills. A good learning environment stretches a student, by placing a major focus just above where a student currently is.
One way to think about constructivism is from a student's expertise level point of view. What he or she already knows can be considered as lower-order knowledge and skills. In some sense, it is "easy stuff." What the student is trying to learn is considered to be "higher order knowledge and skills. It is "new, hard stuff."
This is, of course, an over simplified representation of the very important idea of lower-order versus higher-order knowledge and skills. However, see the diagram given below. From a student learning point of view, the "sweet spot" is the large dot. We want to push the level of a student's expertise above where it currently is.
As with "reading recovery" programs, there are "math recovery" programs in which students who are falling far behind their classmates are given extra math instruction in very small classes. Math recovery programs tend to be aimed at primary school students who are rapidly falling behind their fellow students in numeracy. We know that individual tutoring and intensive small class extra help makes a significant difference.
Such an approach is expensive and is unlikely to be used as a general approach to improving the math education being received by average students.
Probably you have heard the "inch deep, mile wide" characterization of the math education system in the US. This statement about depth versus breadth comes from an analysis of US performance on international assessments. In countries where students tend to do better than in the US, the curriculum has less breadth and greater depth.
- This is an aside. My mental model of what is being talked about is a cylinder that is a mile in diameter and an inch in height. Or, it could be a rectangular solid, with a base that is a mile by a mile square, and a height of one inch. Perhaps these are the type of mental images that the writers of the "inch deep, mile wide" description has in mind. In any case, I understand the idea of depth versus breadth in math. What I don't understand is measuring depth and breadth using inches and miles. (Use of the metric system would not be an improvement.) In my opinion, someone made a very poor choice of words in trying to quantify or measure breadth and depth in math.
Here is a conjecture of how we got into the great breadth, little depth math education curriculum. The possible goals and topics for the curriculum were developed by large teams of people, working to make most of their team members happy. The compromises led to having many many topics in the curriculum—far to many to treat in in any reasonable depth.
This conjecture is only part of the situation. Textbook adoptions are generally done by teams. If a book is to be sold in a number of states, it has to include each of the topics that the state lists in its math benchmarks or standards. Thus, many topics are included in a book in order to help ensure adoption in a variety of states, even though many of the topics do not fit the needs of all states.
One way to write such a book is to make many of the topics somewhat independent of each other. That is, instead of having depth in the curriculum, have breadth of relatively independent topics.
Breadth of somewhat or almost completely independent topics has another value. The instruction can be built into relatively independent pieces. Students memorize with little understanding, pass a test over a small amount of material, and then move on to the next topic that depends very little on the previous topic. Teachers cover the book, students pass the tests and the course, and many students learn very little of lasting value.
The coverage approach is moderately successful. Our math education system has had many years of experience in writing texts and teaching courses that follow this coverage model. Our math assessment system and this math content and instructional approach have been aligned. However, a coverage model is not well designed to help students learn to solve challenging, novel problems.
The coverage approach does not compete well with an in-depth, solving novel problems approach to math education.
- For Reflection and Discussion. Analyze your precollege math education experiences from the point of view of learning to solve novel and challenging problems versus learning to memorize and regurgitate math facts and to solve problems that were nearly identical to those that you had practiced on repeatedly. As you think about this topic, think about how much or how little you actually remember from such coursework.
Inappropriate Curriculum Content and Instruction
I have recently read research that suggests that overall learning is significantly improved by spending less time doing a long set of problems that are essentially all the same, and instead doing a mixed variety of the types of problems one has studied in the past.
When I read such material, I wonder whether it is based on carefully done research. I also wonder if the ideas will ever be widely implemented in our math education system.
Consider the basic question, Can our current math education system can be significantly improved without extending the amount of time spent on math education in schools? Perhaps there is some easy "fix" such as better books, more required homework, or harder and more frequent tests. Another widely supported fix is merely the use of once or twice a year high stakes tests, with students who don't pass the tests not being allowed to graduate from high school.
It is easy to think of ideas that might improve math education. However, it is less easy to think of ideas that have characteristics such as:
- Being researchable. One can design and implement research that is likely to produce convincing evidence of the value or lack of value in a proposed way to improve math education.
- Being scalable. This means the idea can be widely implemented if the research supports doing so.
- Being fiscally sound. This means that wide scale implementation can be done at a "reasonable" cost—at a cost that is within the current funding and extra money that funding agencies might be willing to provide.
- Being strongly supported by the teachers who will implement it and the parents of the children who will educated using the new curriculum and teaching methodologies.
For example, consider the idea of providing each student with a highly qualified math tutor. This is certainly researchable, and such research has already been done. However, it is not scalable (there are not enough highly qualified math tutors), and it is not fiscally sound (it would cost too much).
But wait…. Perhaps it is possible to develop a computer-assisted learning system (CAL) that is as effective as a well qualified human tutor. If we could develop such software, then we would be able to satisfy all three criteria.
Does this sound good to you? What possible flaws in this approach occur to you? Here is a researchable question. What are the long term effects of learning math in a CAL environment? Here are a few difficulties that occur to me:
- Education is a social, human endeavor. Might this much CAL warp a student's social development?
- Is math CAL equally appropriate and effective for students from different cultures, income levels, race, religion, and so on?
- Is math CAL acceptable to parents, teachers, politicians, and other stakeholders groups?
- Is this much computer use healthy for children?
- If children learn most of their precollege math in a CAL environment, how well will they do as they go on to college and run into math courses that are not taught using CAL?
- If elementary school teachers are not directly involved in teaching math, how well will they do in using math in the other disciplines they teach? Might the teaching of uses of math in other disciplines decrease in effectiveness?
The point is, it is not easy to think about the range of possible effects of a change, and then to carry out research on whether these effects will actually be produced.
- Reflection and Discussion. While I was a college math student and later a college math professor, I noted that many faculty members make use of colored chalk. And, of course, teachers at all levels sometimes use colored chalk or colored white board markers in teaching math and other subjects. Analyze the following idea for improving math education. In order to improve math education, the US Federal Government should provide an adequate free supply of good quality colored chalk and colored marking pens for all math teachers to use when teaching math.
Our math education is well aware that students forget the math that they do not routinely use. This crates a major problem at the beginning of every new unit of study. Each unit of study assumes certain prerequisite knowledge and skills. Presumably, most of the students have had instruction that "covered" the prerequisites. However, there are wide variations in how well they remember what they covered. The how well they remember depends on their math capabilities and interests, how well the math was taught, how well it was learned, how often it is used, and so on.
This is an important topic that probably should be included in this document. A good example is provided by the article:
- Rohrer, Doug and Pashler, Harold (2007). Increasing retention without increasing study time. Retrieved 2/18/08: http://www.pashler.com/Articles/RohrerPashler2007CDPS.pdf.
Quoting the abstract of this paper:
- Because people forget much of what they learn, students could beneﬁt from learning strategies that yield long-lasting knowledge. Yet surprisingly little is known about how long-term retention is most efficiently achieved. Here we examine how retention is affected by two variables: the duration of a study session and the temporal distribution of study time across multiple sessions. Our results suggest that a single session devoted to the study of some material should continue long enough to ensure that mastery is achieved but that immediate further study of the same material is an inefﬁcient use of time. Our data also show that the beneﬁt of distributing a ﬁxed amount of study time across two study sessions—the spacing effect—depends jointly on the interval between study sessions and the interval between study and test. We discuss the practical implications of both ﬁndings, especially in regard to mathematics learning.
I found this paper particularly interesting because it addresses the issue of forgetting. Students "forget" most of what is covered in their math courses. Since we know this, it behooves us to address the issue. At the current time, our math education system is doing a poor job of addressing this challenging problem.
Ideas for Improving Math Education.
- "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." (Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States, 1882–1945.)
When Roosevelt became President in 1932, he and the country faced many problems. The status quo was not acceptable. A number of different ways of addressing these problems were explored, and some were implement.
Nowadays, our educational system is placing increased emphasis on research-based changes that have research-based evidence that they are likely to improve our educational system. Sometimes such changes are successful, and oftentimes they are not. Our educational system is highly resistant to change, and it is difficult to achieve long-term high-fidelity implementation of research-based changes.
Every person is a researcher. We all routinely encounter personal problems (tasks, decision situations) and take action. We observe the results of our action, we learn from these results, and we often share our results with others. That is a form of research. If fancier terms, it is the foundation of "action research."
Some Personal Thoughts and Feelings
- "Learning without thinking is labor lost; thinking without learning is dangerous." (Chinese Proverb.)
A number of the ideas in this article are shaped by my experiences as a university faculty member, first in Math, then in Computer Science, and then in Teacher Education. During my long academic career, I have had the opportunity to interact with and learn from many different students, teachers, and other people. I have come to believe in a need for some major changes in our educational system. The following list contains my current recommendations.
- Empowerment of students. I believe that our educational system needs to substantially increase its emphasis on students learning to take more responsibility for their own education. We want students to become independent, self-sufficient, lifelong learners. It is possible to increase emphasis on this starting in the earliest grades, and gradually increasing the emphasis as students progress through school. As students learn to take more responsibility for their learning, they are given more power to shape what it is they will learn and how they will demonstrate this learning.
- ICT tools integrated into the problem solving throughout the curriculum. I believe that the content of our curriculum needs to better include the use of Information and Communication Technology tools to represent and solve problems in each discipline that students study. We are spending a lot of time in school teaching students how to do by hand things that computers can do far faster and more accurately. Students and their teachers need to learn about Computational Thinking, people and computers working together to solve challenging problems and accomplish challenging tasks.
- Authentic content, instruction, and assessment. I believe our educational system can be improved by better aligning content, instruction, and assessment, making them more "authentic" with respect to today's world and what the world is apt to be like when students become adults. Much of our assessment system is not authentic. (Wiggins, 1990) Consider how education would be changed if students were tested in an open book, open computer, open computer connectivity environment and were educated to work and be assessed in such an environment.
- Focus on student expertise. Students can develop increased levels of expertise in areas that fit their own needs and interests, and in areas that are specified by others such as parents, teachers, potential employers, and so on. Many areas of potential expertise fall into both categories. Education can be improved by improving the quality and timeliness of feedback that is available. Good feedback provides information about both current levels of expertise and what to do to improve expertise.
- Distance learning and computer-assisted learning. I believe that all students should be learning how to learn in a distance learning environment and in a computer-assisted learning environment. These two environments are gradually merging. I expect that we will see continuing success in developing highly interactive intelligent computer assisted learning that are delivered over computer networks. Already, within parts of the curriculum, these products lead to significantly better learning results than an average teacher working with a class or 20 to 30 or more students.
- Communicating Across the Disciplines. Each well developed discipline has its own special vocabulary, symbology, and aids to effective communication. Although they draw upon natural language and the general vocabulary that people use all the time, there are many discipline-specific aspects of communication. Thus, for example, when people are trying to say what math is, they often say math is a language, or perhaps they say that Algebra is the language of mathematics. I believe that our math education system is not very successful in helping students learn to read, write, speak, listen, and think in the language of mathematics.
- Transfer of (math) learning. Transfer of learning is one of the most important ideas in education. In terms of math education, each major math idea (topic) can be taught in a manner that facilitates transfer of learn (and, transfer of use) to other disciplines. The high-road/low-road theory of transfer is especially suited to this task. Moursund's free book "Introduction to using games in education" contains an extensive treatment on high-road/low-road transfer of learning and a long list of problem-solving strategies that can be transferred across disciplines using this theory.
Each of the seven ideas given above can be a starting point for exploring what we are doing in math education and how well we are doing in various aspects of math education.
- For reflection and discussion. Which one of the seven ideas given above do you feel is of most potential importance in improving math education, and why? Do you support the idea strongly enough to do something abut it? If so, what can and will you, personally do
Things Individual Teachers and Teachers of Teachers Can Do
- “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed; it's the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist, 1901-1978.)
- "What do you want to contribute?" (Peter Drucker, world class writer and business management consultant, 1901–2005.)
When you view yourself as a math teacher or teacher of math teachers, what are your "signature" traits? What distinguishes you from other teachers of math? What do you want your students to learn that is important aspect or part of you—such as your math and math education beliefs, your uses of math, or your understanding of math?
Remember, math is a human endeavor. What can you do to being this "human endeavor" to your students? One way is to share your personal knowledge and insights into math an an important part of your life.
For example, perhaps one of your major interests and areas of expertise is ancient history. Then you might want your math students to learn some of this ancient history of math and math education. Your math signature trait might be that you occasionally "slip in" interesting tidbits from ancient history and how they related to math and math education.
Or, you might have a special interest in mental math computation. You strongly believe that being able to do mental math calculations rapidly and accurately is both fun and important. So, you share some of your "tricks" with your students and you routinely demonstrate your process in this area.
My personal belief that math education is improved by having math teachers who have some "special" interest in math—some signature traits that they bring into their every day teaching to help personalize and add interest to their students' math learning environment.
This section is the start on a long list of quite specific things that one person—for example, a teacher or a teacher of teachers—can do to improve our math education system. As you browse this list, look for things that you are already doing. Think about how well they are working. If some work really well for you, share them with your fellow teachers.
Look for ideas that you would like to try. Select one and try it. Try it in a reflective manner—in a personal action research manner. How can you tell if your implementation or use of the idea is making a positive difference? If it seems to you that it is making a positive difference, how can you communicate this to your professional colleagues?
Possible "Signature" Areas of Expertise
If you have a math education "signature" or trait, think about its role in your math teaching. Work on ways to make it an important aspect of what your students learn from you. If you don't have any such traits, develop one and do personal action research on its use in your math teaching. Some possible areas are given in the next few entries of this list.
A key idea in improving education is to have students, teachers, parents and other involved as a "community of practice." As noted elsewhere in this document, math is a human endeavor. Teachers can improve math education by helping to get their students and others involved in the human activities of math, and math as a community of practice.
- Calculators are a "fun" area for a signature level of expertise. There is, of course, the inexpensive 6-function solar-powered calculator with memory. Your expertise might include understanding solar batteries,so you can help your students learn about solar batteries. Your expertise might include understanding the memory feature in a calculator (the M+. M-, MR, and MC) and how they are used in problem solving. Your expertise might include understanding how a calculator can calculate a square root. Your expertise might include understanding the repeat feature, used in repeated multiplication or addition. Your expertise might include understanding the calculator number line, and how it differs from the real number line. And, of course, there are a huge number of different types of calculators. See http://www.martindalecenter.com/Calculators.html.
- Origami or in making paper airplanes, has many geometry aspects. There are many Origami and paper airplane sites on the Web. In terms of learning math, think about symmetry, spatial sense, following a detailed step by step set of directions, and producing a product that one can be proud of and share with others. Could this be one of your math teaching signature areas of expertise?
- Model making. Perhaps you like to make physicial or virtual (computerized) models of boats, airplanes, bridges, robots, and so on. Modeling is a fundamental aspect of what math is all about, and why math is so important. There are many important aspects of math that can be illustrated by reference to physical and virtual modeling and simulation.
- Math puzzle problem of the week. Each week, post a math puzzle problem on your classroom bulletin board or on the Website you use with your classes. See Chapter 4 of Moursund's free book "Introduction to using games in education." Also, encourage your students to find and post such challenging puzzles.
- http://mathworld.wolfram.com/Geoboard.html, and http://mathforum.org/trscavo/geoboards/. Explore a circular virtual geoboard at http://nrich.maths.org/public/viewer.php?obj_id=2883.
- Math manipulatives—physical and virtual. As indicated in the geoboard listing, many math manipulatives come in both physical and virtual (computerized) versions. A math teacher might well have use of math manipulatives as one of his or her signature areas of expertise. Math manipulatives help a learner to make many problems more concrete. They help in the visualization of problems as a learner make progress in working using the "mind's eye." The National Library of Virtual Manipulatives is an excellent resource. Read an excellent article discussing by Doug Clements on physical versus virtual manipulatives.Quoting from Clement's 1999 article: "Students who use manipulatives in their mathematics classes usually outperform those who do not , although the benefits may be slight . This benefit holds across grade level, ability level, and topic, given that use of a manipulative "makes sense" for that topic. Manipulative use also increases scores on retention and problem solving tests. Attitudes toward mathematics are improved when students have instruction with concrete materials provided by teachers knowledgeable about their use ."
- Uses of math in (name a discipline). You know, of course, that math is quite important in many different areas. Many math teachers have held non-teaching jobs (often with a high level of success) before deciding to become teachers. Others have hobbies in which they have developed a high level of expertise. Photography is an excellent example. If you are such a teacher, explore your current level of insight into roles of math in a non-math discipline where you have a lot of knowledge and experience. Add to that knowledge as seems appropriate. Then make use of these "real world" applications of math as you help your students to learn math. This might become one of your signature areas of expertise in teaching math.
- Math quotations. A quote can be thought of as a very short story. Often a short quote captures an important event in history. Quotations are often taken out of context, and this tends to make the author's intended hard to discern. On your math bulletin board or website, post a math quote ever one or two weeks. Select ones that you would like your students to understand. A few days after posting, spend a little time in class discussing possible meanings and current relevance, or have your students write on such questions in their math journals. Do a Web search on math quotations or on math education quotations. You will find useful sites such as http://math.furman.edu/~mwoodard/mqs/mquot.shtml and http://www.wsc.ma.edu/math/faculty/fleron/quotes/.
- History of math. Each discipline has its own history. What do you think your students should be learning about the history of the development and use of math? You may find this to be a fund and rewarding topic to develop as one of your signature areas of expertise in math. See, for example, http://www.cln.org/themes/math_history.html. You might also be interested in a history of math education. How about a slide ruler? The slide ruler has become "ancient" history during my lifetime.
- Computers and math. Many teachers are really "into" computers. It may well be that one of your islands of expertise is uses of computers to help represent and solve math related problems, or uses of computers to help teach math. Perhaps with some extra effort in this area, you can know more about roles of computers in math and math education than anyone else in your school. You can routinely make use of this computer knowledge and skill in your math instruction. Your students will remember you as the computer math person.
- Introduction to Using Games in Education: A Guide for Teachers and Parents is specifically designed to teach problem solving through use of games.
- Different cultures and countries. Perhaps you have intimate knowledge of countries, cultures, and languages from countries outside of the United States. One of you math teaching signatures might be bringing in math education ideas from this particular aspect of your background.
- Computer animation. Starting in the earliest grades, students can learn to use Kid Pix or equivalent, and various other software that permits creating and animating objects. There is a lot of math in this, and many kids find it to be fun. Related areas include animation-type programming languages such as Alice, Logo, Scratch, Squeak, and so on. See also LEGO Digital Designer.
- Computer Algebra Systems and other powerful math software packages. Examples include Maple and Mathematica.
Ideas from Dan Meyer
Meyer, Dan (march 2010). TED talk: Math class needs a makeover. (11:39 video.) Retrieved 8/31/2010 from http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/dan_meyer_math_curriculum_makeover.html. Quoting from the Website:
- Today's math curriculum is teaching students to expect -- and excel at -- paint-by-numbers classwork, robbing kids of a skill more important than solving problems: formulating them. At TEDxNYED, Dan Meyer shows classroom-tested math exercises that prompt students to stop and think.
- Dan Meyer asks, "How can we design the ideal learning experience for students?" As a part-time Googler, a provocative blogger and a full-time high-school math teacher, his perspective on curriculum design, teacher education and teacher retention is informed by tech trends and online discourse as much as front-line experience with students.
Meyer has spun off his enlightening message -- that teachers "be less helpful" and push their students to formulate the steps to solve math problems -- into a nationwide tour-of-duty on the speaking circuit.
"I teach high school math. I sell a product to a market that doesn't want it but is forced by law to buy it." Dan Meyer
Teaching Math for Social Justice
Here is a useful reference on the topic:
- Gutstein, Eric (2007). “And That’s Just How It Starts”: Teaching Mathematics and Developing Student Agency. Teachers College Record. Retrieved 2/23/09: http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentID=12799. Quoting from the article:
- This article reports on a two-year qualitative, practitioner-research study of teaching and learning for social justice. The site was my middle-school mathematics classroom in a Chicago public school in a Latino/a community. A major pedagogical goal was to create conditions for students to develop agency, a sense of themselves as subjects in the world. My research suggests that students learned mathematics and began to develop sociopolitical awareness and see themselves as possible actors in society through using mathematics to understand social injustices. This research contributes to our understanding of how to create opportunities for students to develop agency in K-12 mathematics classrooms, and may also contribute to our knowledge of developing agency in any subject area.
Miscellaneous Other Areas
- 1. Ask you students to talk about and/or write about their current knowledge and skills in math relative to their personal needs. As your students talk about or write about this question, have them explain how they know what they are saying is correct. Have them provide specific examples. Use this activity as an aid to approaching the topic of self-assessment. Through this activity, both you and your students can gain increased insight into the quotation:
- "When people cannot see the need for what’s being taught, they ignore it, reject it, or fail to assimilate it in any meaningful way. Conversely, when they have a need, then, if the resources for learning are available, people learn effectively and quickly." (Book by Brown & Duguid, 2000)
- 2. Math area of expertise. Let's use number theory as an example. Number theory is rich in problems and results that are of potential interest to students at all grade levels. Perhaps number theory is one of your islands of math expertise, or an area in which you want to gain greater expertise. Probability is another great area, and it is full of problems that students find both challenging and fun.
- 3. Analyze your math teaching style, paying particular attention to the ideas of intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation. Specifically raise this topic with your students. Help them to learn about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Solicit their insights into their current levels of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in learning and using math.
- 4. Math is a language. That means that students can learn to read, write, speak, listen, and think in the language. Moreover, math is not a "foreign" language that one may have only limited opportunities to use. Rather, math is a routine part of the every activities of all of us. If you teach both math and some other subject(s), think abut how to have communication in and use of math be part of the non-math subject(s) you teach. This idea is to increase your student's use of quantification and quantitative thinking throughout their daily activities. As a specific example, suppose you teach elementary school. Try out the following idea as you start the day with your students. With this sort of start, it then becomes appropriate to ask about and/or talk about using math in the various topics being taught during the day.
- "Good morning students. When I got up this morning, I noticed it was 6:45. I needed to catch my bus at 7:30. It is an eight-minute walk to the bus stop, and I like to get there a couple of minutes early. That meant I had only 35 minutes to shower, dress, get some breakfast, and leave for the bus stop. I had to solve the problem of using that time wisely in order to get all of the things done that I needed to do."
- "Today I am especially interested in math and problem solving. What math did I use this morning? Who has used some math so far today? Please share your examples with the whole class."
- "Today we are going to look for uses of math in all of the things we are doing. For example, later today I will ask you to read three pages in your history book. But, before you read these pages, I will want you to figure out how long it will take you to read the three pages. That is a math problem!"
- 5. Learning to learn math by reading math can be an important aspect of one's math education. Reflect on what you do to help and to encourage your students to learn to read the math book or other written materials your students have access to in your math classes. Develop and implement teaching methods that lead to your students making significant gains in reading, understanding, and learning from written math content.
- 6. Do you have a personal Math Education Digital Filing Cabinet? This link shows you my personal example. If you are a teacher of preservice or inservice teachers, you can benefit by having such an electronic filing cabinet and helping your students develop one for their personal use. Part of the goal is to facilitate and encourage sharing and the building of a professional community of math educators.
- 7. What is your current answer to the student math questions: "Why do we have to learn this? What good is it?" Develop some improved answers and teach them to your students throughout the math course, not just when a student raises the question.
- 8. Think about your personal approaches to determining a student's level of math cognitive development and/or math maturity. Name some specific math teaching techniques you use to increase the level of math cognitive development and/or math maturity of your students. Help your students to learn the concepts of math cognitive development and math maturity, and to recognize when they are making progress increasing their levels.
- 9. When the original version of this document was being written in August, 2008, hundreds of thousands of people in the United States were in the process of losing their homes because they could not afford to make payments on the financing plans they and entered into. A variety of different "initial low interest and low payment" arrangements had been used to convince a very large number of people to borrow to buy a house. The mathematics of these deals was often confusing enough to be beyond the understanding of the borrowers. Similar types of statements hold for people borrowing on their credits cards, and then making the minimal monthly payments. My conclusion is that a very large number of people do not learn enough mathematics to successfully deal with the money aspects of their lives. What can you, as a math teacher, do to help improve this situation?
The two lists given above are a work in progress. Readers are strongly encouraged to add their own ideas here or on the Discussion page (see the menu at the top of this page).
- For Reflection and Discussion. Many people see a large schism between the math they learned in school and the math they use in their everyday lives. Do you experience such a schism? If so, how does this affect your teaching of math, and your students' learning of math?
Video from Judy Willis
See http://www.ascd.org/Publications/Authors/Judy-Willis.aspx?id=593391102001&utm_source=smartbrief&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=willis-book for six short video segments discussing her ASCD book:Learning to Love Math. Quoting from the site:
- Dr. Judy Willis, a board-certified neurologist and middle school teacher in Santa Barbara, California, has combined her training in neuroscience and neuroimaging with her teacher education training and years of classroom experience. She has become an authority in the field of learning-centered brain research and classroom strategies derived from this research.
- Willis attended UCLA School of Medicine, where she remained as a resident and ultimately became chief resident in neurology. She practiced neurology for 15 years, and then received a credential and master's degree in education from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has taught in elementary, middle, and graduate schools; was a fellow in the National Writing Project; and is currently an adjunct lecturer at University of California, Santa Barbara.
See her Website at http://www.radteach.com/.
Mike Shaughnessy, President NCTM
- J. Michael Schaughnessy (August 2011).Reasoning and Sense Making—Expanding Our NCTM Initiative. Retrieved 8/5/2011 from http://www.nctm.org/about/content.aspx?id=30580.
The article gives some nice quotes from the long ago past indicating that teaching math reasoning and sense making has long been a goal in math educatoin. Quoting more recent documents:
- Students should be encouraged to question, experiment, estimate, explore, and suggest explanations. Problem solving, which is essentially a creative activity, cannot be built exclusively on routines, recipes, and formulas. An Agenda for Action, NCTM, 1980, p. 4.
- Definitions (Focus in High School Mathematics: Reasoning and Sense Making, NCTM, 2009)
- • Reasoning: The process of drawing conclusions on the basis of evidence or stated assumptions. (Justification; Generalization; Building towards proof)
- • Sense Making: Developing understanding of a situation, context, or concept by connecting it with existing knowledge. (Communicating; Listening; Connecting)
Suggestions from Steven Leinwand
The following is a Op Ed from Education Week written by Steven Weinwand and first published online January 5, 2009. It has been widely republished.
- Moving Mathematics Out of Mediocrity
- By Steven Leinwand
- The logic for the importance of improving school mathematics programs is reasonably unassailable. The country's long-term economic security and social well-being are clearly linked to sustained innovation and workplace productivity. This innovation and productivity rely, just as clearly, on the quality of human capital and equity of opportunity that, in turn, emerge from high-quality education, particularly in the areas of literacy, mathematics, and science. Applying the if-then deductive logic of classical geometry puts a strong K-12 mathematics program at the heart of America's long-term economic viability.
- But the problems with mathematics in the United States are just as clear. A depressingly comprehensive, yet honest, appraisal must conclude that our typical math curriculum is generally incoherent, skill-oriented, and accurately characterized as "a mile wide and an inch deep." It is dispensed via ruthless tracking practices and focused mainly on the "one right way to get the one right answer" approach to solving problems that few normal human beings have any real need to consider. Moreover, it is assessed by 51 high-stakes tests of marginal quality, and overwhelmingly implemented by undersupported and professionally isolated teachers who too often rely on "show-tell-practice" modes of instruction that ignore powerful research findings about better ways to convey mathematical knowledge.
- For 20 years, we have tinkered at the margins, merely adjusting parts of the system while ignoring the fact that the basic structure has remained largely intact and underperforming. During those 20 years, we've raised achievement a little and narrowed gaps a bit. But even as the need for broader and deeper mathematical literacy has grown, our traditional approach still rarely works for more than a third of our students, and it fails even more when it comes to critical-reasoning and problem-solving skills. It shouldn't be all that surprising that on the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, 15-year-old U.S. students placed an unacceptable 25th out of 30 countries tested.
- Fortunately, the solutions are as clear as the problems. The answers do not revolve around costly new initiatives. Moving beyond mediocrity does not have to mean new textbooks and supplemental programs, or a slew of new calculators and computers, or jumping on the latest bandwagon of benchmark assessments. Instead, our attention needs to focus on how effectively existing programs are implemented, how available technology is integrated and used to enhance the learning of skills and concepts, and why assessments that steal valuable instructional time must provide relevant information that is actually put to use to inform revisions and reteaching.
- In short, it's time to turn to the real basics of what we expect students to learn, how we convey that, how we measure student learning, and how we support teachers and reduce their isolation.
- We need first to recognize that most of our major economic competitors, and nearly all of the highest-scoring countries on international assessments, have a national set of mathematics standards that guarantees a degree of coherence, focus, and alignment absent in the patchwork of state standards in the United States. A nationally mandated curriculum isn't the answer. But a broadly accepted, strongly recommended set of world-class national mathematics standards for grades K-12 is. Such standards would provide informed guidance and attract widespread interest, yet would not fall under the antiquated rubric of "local control."
- If we took this route, textbooks could be revamped to cut redundancy and add depth and balance between procedural and conceptual understanding. The recommended math standards could delineate sensible and reasonable expectations for students at each grade level and in each course. Curriculum sequences and objectives could be crafted so that all students would reach key elements of algebra in 8th grade and leave high school with sufficient understanding of both calculus and statistics. These skills would help them thrive in the workplace and at postsecondary institutions.
- Second, we need to examine what common sense, observation, and research tell us about instructional practices that make significant differences in student achievement. Such practices can be found in high-performing schools across the country. There, we see teachers making "Why?" a classroom mantra to support a culture of reasoning and justification. We see cumulative review being incorporated daily. We see deliberately planned lessons that skillfully employ alternative approaches and multiple representations that value different ways to reach solutions to real problems. We see teachers relying on relevant contexts and using questions to create language-rich mathematics classrooms.
- Good mathematics instruction is hard, but it isn't quantum physics. Yet few vehicles are currently used to model and institutionalize these techniques that make a difference. That is why compassionate, collegial, and yet candid coaching and supervision, guided by a compelling vision of high-quality mathematics instruction, can make such a tremendous difference in how much students learn and how teaching skills are strengthened.
- Third, we need to address the current mishmash of assessments that has emerged from implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. How can one expect instruction to focus on conceptual understanding, or communicating one's thinking or reasoning through a complex problem, when tests hold students accountable for only low-level skills and multiple-choice answers? Accountability isn't the problem. The problem rests with the instruments being used to hold the system accountable.
- We should look at what characterizes student assessments in other countries. Most of Singapore's tests, for example, consist of problem-oriented, constructed-response items. PISA's items are set in realistic contexts and require thinking and reasoning about substantive mathematics, as opposed to recall and regurgitation of tangential content. Moving forward, we must look to the federal government and its research-and-development muscle and investment to create high-quality national assessments of mathematics at the ends of grades 4, 8, and 10. Until this happens, we will continue to muddle through multiple and meaningless standards with mixed signals and continued mediocrity.
- Establishing a set of high-stakes, high-quality, annually released national assessments will drive improvement, reduce the current hodgepodge of state assessments, and move the United States toward a rational alignment between what is taught and what is tested.
- Finally, we need to address professional isolation among teachers. It is the nature of the profession that most educators practice their craft behind closed doors. They usually go about their work unobserved and undersupported. Far too often, teachers revert to how they were taught, not how their effective colleagues are teaching. Common problems are often solved individually rather than collaboratively.
- Successful enterprises don't tolerate such conditions. We must change the professional culture of teaching. Principals must develop innovative ways to facilitate professional sharing and interaction. Middle and high school math departments must become true communities of learners.
- In an example of this strategy in motion, teachers in one enterprising district I have visited regularly share and discuss their videotaped lessons. After two years of their doing so, the district finds that marginal teachers have become good teachers, and good teachers have become even better. Simultaneously, classroom practices have become far more transparent and discussions now focus on specific instructional strategies. Common problems are approached and solved collaboratively.
- It is time to recognize math education as a critical component of America's economic infrastructure. National interest supports a military for the country's defense and an interstate highway system for effective commerce. Now, we must support—and demand—a national K-12 mathematics program that far better serves our students, our economy, and our national interest.
- Steven Leinwand is a principal research analyst at the American Institutes for Research, in Washington. He is the author of the forthcoming book Accessible Mathematics: Ten Instructional Shifts That Raise Student Achievement (Heinemann).
Suggestions from Arthur Benjamin
Arthur Benjamin is a mathematician, a mathemagician, and a math educator. His current views are that our secondary math education is very strongly slanted toward getting students ready for and into calculus. He feels that this is wrong[. Instead, we should be focusing on probability and statistics his 3-minute 2009 TED talk.
Suggestions from Michael Fullan & Ben Levin
Fullan, Michael and Levin, Ben (June 2009). The Fundamentals of Whole-System Reform. Retrieved 8/14/09: http://hawaiidoeliteracy.pbworks.com/f/fullan_systemreform.doc.
This article argues that significant improvement of our educational system depends on approaching improvements from a whole-system point of view. Quoting from the article:
- Charter schools, Teach For America, and the Knowledge Is Power Program may have their merits, but they are not whole-system reform. The latter is about improving every classroom, every school, and every district in the state, province, or country, not just some schools. The moral and political purpose of whole-system reform is ensuring that everyone will be affected for the better, starting on day one of implementing the strategy. The entire system should show positive, measurable results within two or three years.
- We have done this in Ontario, Canada, where we have had the opportunity since 2003 to implement new policies and practices across the system—all 4,000 elementary schools, 900 secondary schools, and the 72 districts that serve 2 million students. Following five years of stagnation and low morale, from 1998 to 2003, the impact of the new strategies has been dramatic: Higher-order literacy and numeracy have increased by 10 percentage points across the system; the high school graduation rate has risen 9 percentage points, from 68 percent to 77 percent; the morale of teachers and principals has improved; and the public’s confidence in the system is up. [Bold added for emphasis.]
- This work is by no means completed, but the number of elementary students at low literacy levels has fallen by 50 percent, and the number of schools with a large percentage of students not meeting the high provincial standard has been cut by 75 percent.
- Whole-system reform means focusing on a small number of core policies and strategies, doing them well as a set, and staying the course by not being distracted. It must be politically driven by leaders at the very top, such as is the case in Ontario, with Premier Dalton McGuinty. But these leaders also must understand, embrace, and participate deeply in implementation by putting in place a set of fundamental whole-system-reform strategies.
Suggestion from Ken Jensen
The following is quoted from an email message sent to the NCSM distribution list on 11/27/09 by Ken Jensen.
- This article referring to a previous distribution to the NCSM distribution list seems to reinforce the need to prepare math teachers with a strong understanding of mathematical concepts as well as the instructional practices necessary to develop the concepts in the minds of students.
- I have found that there are two struggles that math majors have when working with students. First, it is difficult for a math major who was able to easily take on these concepts to have empathy for students who struggle with them. Second, many math majors were successful in a procedural based classroom where getting the correct answer was virtually all that mattered. Many therefore struggle with teaching in a problem based classroom where the students are required to explain why the answer is correct and how it applies to the context. The example given from Mr. Fennel's response, "create a basic word problem or number-line representation of a simple fraction or math concept" is classic. Those who grow up in procedure based classrooms will usually struggle to represent meaning in a model such as this.
- A teacher's understanding of both math concepts and math instruction is necessary if we are to ever develop the kinds of mathematical understandings that will create a mathematically literate society. This of course is necessary at all levels—elementary, secondary, and post secondary.
Michigan /state University Teacher Education Study in Mathematics
- A study led by William Schmidt of Michigan State University reports that the United States needs better-trained elementary and middle-school math teachers to compete globally. The Teacher Education Study in Mathematics (TEDS-M) surveyed more than 3,300 future teachers in the U.S. and 23,244 future teachers across 16 countries.Read the full 2010 57-page report, “Breaking the Cycle: An International Comparison of U.S. Mathematics Teacher Preparation.” Quoting from the Executive Summary:
- The Teacher Education and Development Study in Mathematics (TEDS-M) examined teacher preparation in 16 countries looking at how primary level and middle school level teachers of mathematics were trained. The study examined the course taking and practical experiences provided by teacher preparation programs at colleges, universities and normal schools. (The study did not include what are often referred to as alternative programs.) Future teachers near the end of their programs were assessed both in terms of their knowledge of mathematics as well as their knowledge of how to teach mathematics (pedagogical knowledge). For the U.S. nearly 3300 future teachers from over 80 public and private colleges and universities in 39 states were involved. Data were collected over two years. The public colleges and universities were sampled and the data were collected in 2007 while the private data were collected in the spring of 2008.
- The study reveals that middle school mathematics teacher preparation is not up to the task. U.S. future teachers find themselves, straddling the divide between the successful and the unsuccessful, leaving the U.S. with a national choice of which way to go.
- The findings of TEDS-M additionally revealed that the preparation of elementary teachers to teach mathematics was comparatively somewhat better as the U.S. found itself in the middle of the international distribution, along with other countries such as the Russian Federation, Germany and Norway but behind Switzerland, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan – throughout this report) and Singapore.
- U.S. future teachers are getting weak training mathematically, and are just not prepared to teach the demanding mathematics curriculum we need especially for middle schools if we hope to compete internationally. This is especially true given that 48 of the states are currently considering the adoption of the more rigorous “Common Core” standards.
A $100 Million Suggestion from Keith Devlin
Devlin, Keith (2/12/2010). Wanted: An Apollo program for math. WNET.ORG. Retrieved 5/20/2010 from http://thirteencelebration.org/blog/edblog/edblog-wanted-an-apollo-program-for-math/.
Keith Devlin is a world class math educator and a professor at Stanford University. Based on his current research and insights into the math education system in the United States, he believes that a computer simulation could be written, aimed at 8–13 year old students, which would substantially change their math education. This would be a math simulator in which the emphasis is on students learning to think and solve problems in math. The cost to develop this "game" would be abut $100 million.
Quoting from the article:
- The US ranks much worse than most of our economic competitors in the mathematics performance of high school students.
- We now have the knowledge to turn that around. We could raise the level of mathematics performance across the board, within a single school generation, so that we are number one in the world. All it would take is a one-time, national investment of $100 million over a five-year period. That’s what it would cost to build and put in place a system that could achieve that change, with the existing school system and the existing teachers. Once built, that system would be self-sustaining.
Here is an additional quote from the article:
- Many attempts have been made to improve US middle-school mathematics education, but all have failed to achieve the desired results. I think the reason is clear.
- They have all focused on improving basic math skills. In contrast, I (and a great many of my colleagues) believe the emphasis should be elsewhere. Mathematics is a way of thinking about problems and issues in the world. Get the thinking right and the skills come largely for free.
Technology-Supported Math Instruction for Students with Disabilities
Hasselbring, Ted, Alan Lott, and Janet Zydney (2006). Technology-Supported Math Instruction for Students with Disabilities: Two Decades of Research and Development. LD Online. Retrieved 6/30/2010 from http://www.ldonline.org/article/Technology-Supported_Math_Instruction_for_Students_with_Disabilities%3A_Two_Decades_of_Research_and_Development Quoting from the article:
- Most people would agree that a major goal of schooling should be the development of students’ understanding of basic mathematical concepts and procedures. All students, including those with disabilities and those at risk of school failure, need to acquire the knowledge and skills that will enable them to figure out math-related problems that they encounter daily at home and in future work situations. Unfortunately, there is considerable evidence to indicate that this objective is not being met, especially for children exhibiting learning difficulties. Since the first discouraging results of mathematics achievement reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 1973, there has been little evidence to suggest that mathematics achievement has improved significantly, especially for students with disabilities.
- A variety of technologies are available to enhance students' mathematical competency by building their declarative, procedural, and conceptual knowledge. The remainder of this paper will review these technologies. This review will be guided by the NCTI Mathematics Matrix found at www.citeducation.org/mathmatrix. The matrix identifies six purposes of technology use for supporting student mathematical learning, including:
- building computational fluency;
- converting symbols, notations, and text;
- building conceptual understanding;
- making calculations and creating mathematical representations;
- organizing ideas; and
- building problem solving and reasoning.
Math in Context
There are a number of different names (such as Realistic Math) for this idea. One of the basic ideas is to situate math in a context so that students have an increased chance to detect when they are making errors that lead to grossly wrong answers.
An example of this is provided in the way that scientists do a lot of their computations. They carry along units of measure in their computations. In essence, the the types of problems that involve working with measurements provide a context. Carrying along the units of measure provide an aid to detecting errors in commutation and thinking.
A variation on this is for students to learn to add context to a problem. Richard Feynman was a Nobel prize winning physicist. One of his strengths is that he could take a math problem or proposed (conjectured) theorem and visualize in his in a meaning for the problem or proposed in the context of physics. This then provided him with insight to help check answers produced from solving the problem or whether the theorem might be a correct theorem.
For a simple example, consider the equation x - 17 = 5. Before solving the equation, a student might think (might be provided with instruction in learning to think):
- I think this is an equation involving numbers. My goal is to find a number that is a solution to the equation. I see the numbers 17 and 5. I wonder if an answer might be larger or smaller than 17? Aha! x must be larger than 17, because when I decrease it by 17 I get the positive number 5. … Hmm. I can sort of "see" x as a starting point on the number line, moving left on that line a distance of 17, and ending up at the number 5. …
This type of "math in the mind's eye" type of visualization and thinking is an importatn aid to learning and understanding.
Here are a few references on Math in Context.
MMM (n.d.). Modeling Middle School Mathematics: Mathematics in Context Video Series. Retrieved 5/18/09: http://www.mmmproject.org/mic.htm.
- Mathematics in Context curriculum is designed so that lessons begin with a meaningful context and the math is extracted from that context. The context here involves a ladder positioned against a building, what it does, and for whom and when would a ladder be needed. The class moves outside where they help the school janitor position a ladder. By directing the positioning of the ladder, students see and describe how the angles and distances made by the ladder change when the ladder moves from an unstable position to a safe and stable position- underscoring the mathematical focus of this lesson - the tangent ratio.
Romberg, Tom (September 20060). The Promises of Realistic Math Education. Wisconsin Center for Educational Research. Retrieved 5/18/09: http://wcer.wisc.edu/news/coverStories/promises_of_realistic_math_education.php.
- Students in mathematics classrooms should not be considered passive recipients of ready-made math. Instead, students should be guided toward using opportunities to reinvent mathematics by doing it themselves.
- That’s one of the principles underlying Hans Freudenthal’s concept of mathematics as a human activity. Students start with a context-linked activity. …
Vos, Pauline (2007). The Dutch Mathematics Curriculum: 25 Years of Modelling as Part and Parcel of Mathematics Education. Retrieved 5/18/09:http://site.educ.indiana.edu/Portals/161/Public/Vos.pdf.
- ABSTRACT: In the Netherlands, mathematics education is intertwined with applications as a result of the inspirational work by Hans Freudenthal and his colleagues, who developed a treatise known as Realistic Mathematics Education (RME). In this paper I will present a retrospective on twenty-five years of curriculum revisions in the Netherlands, exemplified by two nation-wide projects that established new routines into modern Dutch mathematics education. The first project established a new mathematics curriculum for the lesser gifted students in grades 7-10. In this curriculum modelling serves as a vehicle for students’ construction of mathematical knowledge. The second project established an annual modelling competition for teams of students at senior secondary level in the social sciences streams.
Some Thoughts on Possible Futures of Math Education
Last week I participated in a Teachers of Teachers of Mathematics meeting held in Eugene, Oregon. This group first got started about 30 years ago. The members are dedicated to improving preservice and inservice math education in Oregon.
At the meetings, I pay particular attention to change or potential change in math education based on research in teaching and learning math, research in brain science, the whole field of Information and Communication Technology. At these meetings I tend to be disappointed about the lack of emphasis in these three areas.
During the past 30 years there has been a lot of research on math education. As in other areas of educational research, there is a major challenge in translating this research (theory) into actual practice. During this time, the National Science Foundation has provided quite a bit of funding to support the development of new curricula and supporting instructional materials for K-12 math education. This is one way to help translate theory into practice. The fact that math education has not improved substantially over the past 30 years suggests some combination of the following:
- The research being done is not powerful enough to lead to significant widespread improvements.
- The methods of disseminating and implementing the research (including through development of new instructional materials and methods) is not effective enough to to lead to significant widespread improvements.
- Information and Communication Technology is not a sufficiently powerful aid to doing and learning math of that it can lead to significant improvements in our math education system.
Brain science (cognitive neuroscience) has been making very rapid progress. I have seen estimates that the totality of knowledge in these areas is doubling in less than 10 years. (Indeed, some claim the doubling rate is five years.) We are beginning to see some examples of translating this theory into educational practice, but the overall results on our entire educational system (or, our entire math eduction system) have been modest.
How about possible effects of Information and Communication Technology in math education? This is a large topic. One aspect of the topic is that ICT can be a powerful aid to translating theory into practice. Thus, for example, we can look at modern computer-assisted learning in math, and see the extent to which it incorporates important research ideas in math education, and important research ideas in brain science. Some good progress is occurring in this area—for example, look at the materials being developed at Carnegie-Mellon.
A second possibility is that widespread availability of ICT and ICT-based devices calculators, computers, GPS) might lead to significant changes in the overall math curriculum content. Some topics might be dropped or receive less attention, freeing up more time for topics in which humans and human brains are much better than computers. Some modest curriculum changes have occurred (for example, slide rule and use of math tables have disappeared from the curriculum), but the overall change has been modest.
Etc. This section is a work in progress. What will math education look like 30 years from now? Will it be better than it is now, or than it was 30 years ago?
Comments About High School Draft Math Standards for Oregon
The following three email messages to the Oregon math education co0mmunity contain some of my ideas about the Draft High School Mathematics Standards for the State of Oregon that I had a chance to read and comment on in Mid December, 2008. They contain some of my thoughts on how to improve math education. As you rad these, you will see that my thoughts include a strong emphasis on roles of Information and Communication Technology in math education. My feeling is that math education standards and assessment that essentially ignore computer technology are terribly out of date.
What is Math and Other Questions
Through a mailing to the TOTOM list, I received a PDF file copy of the current version of the Oregon Math Draft High School Standards. Perhaps all of you have already received it.
This draft obviously represents a lot of hard work by a lot of dedicated people. Still, I'd like to raise a few questions and propose a few changes. I will do this in three moderately short email messages, since people often to not read long email messages.
First and foremost, what can one person (such as me) do to help improve our math education system? The answer is, "probably not as much as a group can do. Quoting Margaret Mead:
- “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed; it's the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead)
More recently, the idea of crowdsourcing has become popular. The idea is that a very large number of people working together, each contributing their own small pieces, can make huge changes. The Wikipedia is an example. You can read my thoughts about crowdsourcing and memes issue #7 of the free newsletter available at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.
A key idea in crowdsourcing is a large number of people contributing their thoughts on a topic. I hope that many of you will respond to the OCTM and TOTOM list with your thoughts on the following type of questions:
What sorts of answers should we expect students completing the required high school math courses to give to questions such as:
1. What is math?
2. What difference does my learning the math in the courses I am required to take make to me now and in my possible futures?
3. Same two questions, but for algebra, geometry, statistics, and probability.
4. What is a variable, a set, a function, a graph, an equation, a math model, and a proof? What roles do they play in knowing, doing, and using math?
In my opinion, the Draft High School Math standards do not ensure that students will be able to give adequate answers to questions such as those given above.
This is the second of my responses for input to the Oregon Draft High School Math Standards. If you agree or disagree with my ideas, I strongly encourage you to communicate your thoughts to the people this email message is being distributed to.
Note that the document uses the word "technology" in several places where the intended meaning is computer technology or perhaps Information and Communication Technology. We have all kinds of technology, such as medical technology, nanotechnology, and GPS technology. We have a number of technologies that are quite important in representing and solving math problems. (An abacus is technology; paper and pencils are technology; compass, and protractor are technologies.) Thus, more precision is needed in the places where the document says "technology."
Next, think about the fact that computers and related technology can solve or help solve a very wide range of math problems. I hope that you read about memes in the Issue #7 of the free newsletter available at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.
Here is an idea to consider. I strongly believe it is a poor use of a student's learning time and efforts to spend them learning to do by hand the types of things that computers are very good at. This thought is applicable in each discipline taught in schools.
In more technical terms, "computational thinking" should be an integral component of math education. Computational thinking is a meme. See http://iae-pedia.org/Computational_Thinking for a quick introduction to computational thinking.
The basic idea is a combination of math modeling, computer modeling , human intelligence, and artificial intelligence to represent and solve problems in every discipline.
Another way of representing the computational thinking meme in math education is students should be learning the capabilities and limitations of Information and Communication Technology as an integral component of the content of each math topic they are studying.
Page 6 of the Draft Standards includes a bulleted list of nine items. The ninth one is:
- Employ effective and appropriate use of technology.
The roots of computer science and computer technology are deeply intertwined with mathematics. Nowadays, the overall discipline of mathematics is divided into "theoretical," applied", and "computational." Thus, the above bulleted item might be more appropriately represented as:
- Employ Computer and Information Science Technology to effectively and appropriately represent and solve math problems both in the discipline of math (that is, as an integral component of math) and in applications of math to other disciplines.
Math, A Human endeavor
This is the third of my responses for input to the Oregon Draft High School Math Standards. If you agree or disagree with my ideas, I strongly encourage you to communicate your thoughts to the people this email message is being distributed to.
Likely you have heard the meme that mathematics is a human endeavor. Math has a very long history and has made major contributions to the development of the current cultures and societies of our world. This history of math goes back to well before the development of reading and writing (which first occurred more than 5,000 years ago).
What do we want students to know about the history, beauty, the fun and joy, and the human endeavor aspects of math? There seems to be very little of this in the Draft High School Math Standards.
The idea of communication in the language of math is included in the Draft Standards. ( See: http://iae-pedia.org/Communicating_in_the_Language_of_Mathematics.) However, the general idea of learning to read math well enough to learn math by reading is not made explicit. Also, it is not made explicit that one of the most important ideas in problem solving is to build on the previous work of oneself and others. In particular, there is no emphasis on using the strategy "look it up" as an aid to learning and doing math.
Nowadays, the Web is very frequently used as one employs a "look it up" strategy. What do we want students to learn about the use of the Web and other information storage and retrieval devices as part of their math learning endeavors? What do we want students to learn about open book, open computer, and open connectivity as a key aspect of how one does math outside of school settings? In my opinion, the Draft Standards are particularly weak in this area.
Distance Education for Students and Teachers
A 8/12/09 Google search of "Cognitive Tutor" OR "I Can Learn" produced over 2.7 million hits. These two distance education programs have been able to provide significant evidence of their effectiveness.
Consider the large topic of how distance learning might change math education both for students and for preservice and inservice teachers. Quite a bot of material (courses, pieces of courses) exists. Quality varies, and there is fragmentation.
At the inservice level, there are a wide variety of needs. One aspects of this situation is the need for inservice teachers to obtain Continuing Education Units or credits from accredited institutions. The teachers seek relevance, convenience, quality, and low cost.
We are all aware that education is a social endeavor. In terms of distance learning, courses may have a face to face component (hybrid courses) and may require pr provide for extensive Internet-facilitated interaction among students and with their faculty.
American Diploma Project Algebra II End-Of-Course Exam: 2008 Annual Report discusses a new attempt to determine how well students are learning Algebra II.
Boldt, Megan (10/24/08). State can begin using new graduation tests. TwinCities.com. Retrieved 10/25/08: http://www.twincities.com/ci_10799932?nclick_check=1. Quoting from the article:
- An administrative judge's ruling that Minnesota can move ahead with its new high school graduation tests has school administrators worried.
- They fear high school students won't have enough time to get the help they need to pass the exams.
- Most troubling is the math test. This year's juniors will be the first to take the math graduation test; it will be embedded in the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.
- Last year, nearly two-thirds of juniors failed a similar math exam.
- "This is a daunting issue coming at us. These are almost 70 percent of our students, who might already be accepted to college, who are getting As and Bs ... who might not get a diploma," said Grace Keliher, director of governmental relations for the Minnesota School Boards Association.
- Comment by David Moursund: Of course, the test grades will go up as teachers consciously or subconsciously teach to the new test. What is interesting to me is that the expectations in the new test are so different from the expectations of the teachers and the overall math curriculum. This article, in conjunction with the reference American Diploma Project Algebra II given above, provides evidence of a mismatch between the expectations being established and the reality of our current school system.
Borasi, Raffaella and Fonzi, Judith. (2002). Foundations: A monograph for professionals in science, mathematics, and technology education. Professional Development That Supports School Mathematics Reform. National Science Foundation. Retrieved 10/28/08: http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2002/nsf02084/start.htm.
Quoting from Chapter—Summary:
- No single model of professional development emerges from the many successful examples reported in the literature on mathematics teacher education. Instead, we find many examples of worthwhile experiences that address the multiple needs of teachers engaged in school mathematics reform. In Chapter 1, we identified and discussed these needs, categorizing them as follows:
- Developing a vision and commitment to school mathematics reform.
- Strengthening one’s knowledge of mathematics.
- Understanding pedagogical theories that underlie school mathematics reform.
- Understanding students’ mathematical thinking.
- Learning to use effective teaching and assessment strategies.
- Becoming familiar with exemplary instructional materials and resources.
- Understanding equity issues and their classroom implications.
- oping with the emotional aspects of engaging in reform.
- Developing an attitude of inquiry toward one’s practice.
Cavanagh,Sean (3/28/08). Essential Qualities of Math Teaching Remain Unknown. Education Week. Retrieved 12/9/08: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/04/02/31math_ep.h27.html?tmp=1066881794.
Quoting from the article:
- It is one of most widely accepted axioms in math education: Good teachers matter.
- But what are the qualities of an effective mathematics teacher? The answer, as a recent federal report suggests, remains frustratingly elusive.
- Research does not show conclusively which professional credentials demonstrate whether math teachers are effective in the classroom, the report found. It does not show what college math content and coursework are most essential for teachers. Nor does it show what kinds of preservice, professional-development, or alternative education programs best prepare them to teach
Fenwick, Chris (n.d.). UCL's University Preparatory Course in Science and Engineering. Retrieved 12/6/07: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~uczlcfe/main.html. Quoting from this website:
- Surprising as it may sound the learning of mathematics is not just about learning to 'get the right answer'. It is also (amongst other things) about being able to think mathematically and read mathematically, and then being able to show how you develop your ability, reading and thinking. Consequently, as part of the coursework you will need not only to be able to do the mathematics set but also be able to describe exactly the process by which you went about doing such mathematics.
- Hence, throughout the course you will need to demonstrate your developing mathematical thinking, technical and reading ability by :
- solving specific mathematical problems
- adopting the approach of reading mathematics. This will be done by interpreting technical text, mathematical expressions, solutions to mathematical problems, diagrams, etc...
- studying and learning how you go about working on, solving and hence, learning mathematics
- Specifically, the course aims to help you develop the following abilities :
- the ability to solve appropriate mathematical problems
- the ability to construct appropriate mathematical proofs
- the ability to read mathematically by interpreting/describing mathematical text, expressions, solutions and/or proofs as appropriate, and demonstrate this through written and/or oral work
- think mathematically by identifying mathematical patterns and use these to extend given mathematics
- the ability to critically analyse and discuss issues in mathematics, as well as your learning of mathematics
- the ability to work individually and in groups on the topic of mathematics
- the ability to improve &/or extend any aspect of 1) - 6) above.
Good, Thomas L., Burros, Heidi Legg, and McCaslin, Mary M (2005).Comprehensive School Reform: A Longitudinal Study of School Improvement in One State Teachers College record. retrieved 3/14/08: http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentID=12190. This provides a nice summary of some of the research on comprehensive school reform.
Kadiec, Alison and Friedman, Will (2007). Important, but not for me: Kansas and Missouri students and parents talk about Math, Science and Technology Education. Public Agenda. Retrieved 9/20/07: http://www.publicagenda.org/ImportantButNotforMe/.
Klein, Alyson (5/30/08). Ed. Dept. Says Enrollment Nears Milestone. NCES report projects growth in the number of students through 2017. Retrieved 6/3/08: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/06/04/39condition.h27.html?tmp=1450410995
- Public school K-12 enrollment in the US is projected to hit 50 million for the year 2009-2010. One of the things I found interesting is:
- The report also found that the percentage of school-age children with one or more parents who have attained at least a bachelor’s degree has also soared over the past quarter-century. In 1979, 19 percent of students had a parent who had attained that level of education. By 2006, it was 35 percent.
- This is interesting to me because this increasing level of education of parents should be leading to an increasing level of student performance in schools.
Klein, David (2003). A Brief History of American K-12 Mathematics Education in the 20th Century. Retrieved 8/13/08: http://www.csun.edu/~vcmth00m/AHistory.html. The following is quoted from this article:
- By 1996, the NSF clarified its assumptions about what constitutes effective, standards-based education and asserted that:
- All children can learn by using and manipulating scientific and mathematical ideas that are meaningful and relate to real-world situations and to real problems.
- Mathematics and science are learned by doing rather than by passive methods of learning such as watching a teacher work at the chalkboard. Inquiry-based learning and hands-on learning more effectively engage students than lectures.
- The use and manipulation of scientific and mathematical ideas benefits from a variety of contributing perspectives and is, therefore, enhanced by cooperative problem solving.
- Technology can make learning easier, more comprehensive, and more lasting.
- This view of learning is reflected in the professional standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences.
Landers, Jim (2/82009). Texas school reformers try to learn lessons from Finland. The Dallas Morning News. Retrieved 2/12/09: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/020809dnbusfinaland.30a53af.html.
Quoting from the article:
- By the time Finland's children complete the ninth grade, they speak three languages. They have studied algebra, geometry and statistics since the first grade. And they beat the pants off students from just about everywhere else in the world.
- In math, science, problem solving and reading comprehension, Finland's 15-year-olds came out at or near the top in international tests given in 2000, 2003 and 2006. Even the least among Finnish students – the lowest 10 percent – beat their peers everywhere else.
Lockhart, Paul. (2002). A Mathematician’s Lament. Retrieved 6/20/09: www.maa.org/devlin/LockhartsLament.pdf.
Mooney, Nancy and Mausbach, Ann (2008). Align the Design: A Blueprint for School Improvement. ASCD. Retrieved 3/15/08: http://www.ascd.org/portal/site/ascd/template.chapter/menuitem.6b8e5ca7dd1e8e8cdeb3ffdb62108a0c/?chapterMgmtId=a51d5260e4338110VgnVCM1000003d01a8c0RCRD. Takes an appropriate multidimensional approach. Quoting from the Introduction to the book:
- The five processes that we use for school improvement are not new to teachers and administrators who diligently seek to raise the bar for their schools. We call these five essentials the blueprint processes.
- Establishing a mission, vision, and values that guide the general direction of the school and its future actions,
- Using data analysis, which includes both collecting and interpreting data, for better decision making,
- Using school improvement planning to guide goals, strategies, decisions, and action steps and to create a working plan for the school,
- Reshaping professional development to become the engine of school improvement, and
- Differentiating supervision of teaching and learning to monitor how processes are working inside classrooms.
Mehta, Seema (6/11/08). Students likely to fail high school exit exam can be identified as early as 4th grade, study says. The authors use the findings to question the wisdom of spending millions to tutor older students struggling with the test. Retrieved 6/13/08: http://www.latimes.com/news/education/la-me-exitexam11-2008jun11,0,2483597.story.
- This article is relevant to math education, since high stakes testing at the high school level in math is increasingly common in the United States.
Authentic math contest:
Moursund, D.G. (June 2006). Computational Thinking and Math Maturity: Improving Math Education in K-8 Schools. Retrieved 9/16/07: http://uoregon.edu/~moursund/Books/ElMath/ElMath.html.
NCTM (2010). Linking research & practice: The NCTM Research Agenda Conference Report. Retrieved 5/12/2010 from http://www.nctm.org/uploadedFiles/Research,_Issues,_and_News/Research/Linking_Research_20100511.pdf.
- This 56 page report represents the work of a large number of people who participated in a 2008 4-day meeting funded by the National Science Foundation. They worked their way through 350 mathematics education practitioner-generated questions and reduced these to a manageable set, and then down to 10 questions. Quoting from the report:
- "It is also important to note that the questions presented in this document constitute what some might consider 'a' research agenda for mathematics education. It is not our intention to imply that this set of questions constitutes 'the' research agenda for mathematics education."
SIAM (n.d.). Moody's Mega Math Challenge Contest. Retrieved 4/25/09: http://m3challenge.siam.org/problems/.
This is an open-ended, realistic, applied math modeling problem focused on a real-world issue. Quoting from the Website:
- The purpose of the Moody's Mega Math Challenge, in addition to being a contest for the best, brightest and most creative minds, is to elevate high school students' enthusiasm and excitement about using mathematics to solve real-world problems and to increase students' interests in pursuing math-related studies and careers in college and beyond. Moody's and SIAM are interested in improving the pipeline of young people into studies and careers in applied mathematics, and encourage students to participate in this contest as an educational process.
Nodding, Nel (2004). Learning from our students. Kappa Delta Pi Record. Retrieved 10.9/08: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa4009/is_/ai_n9424190.
- This is an excellent article discussing the fact that many students lack the math ability to preform at the math levels our school systems expect of them. Quoting from the article:
- We find it especially difficult to consider the possibility that some people have little aptitude for, say, mathematics. The great mathematician Poincare (1956, 2041) asked, "How does it happen there are people who do not understand mathematics?" Yet, he proceeded honestly in a fascinating essay to describe his own difficulty with chess. Despite his incredible mathematical aptitude, he was a poor chess player. He also had little aptitude for drawing and got a zero on the admission test required by the Ecole Polytechnique. Wisely, the admissions committee opted to disregard this score (which, by the rules, automatically disqualified him) and admit him on the basis of his outstanding achievements in mathematics. For some people-including those who try hard-certain academic studies are a mystery and remain extremely difficult.
- Instead of reflecting on our requirements and considering ways in which we might build on students' real interests, many of us strive mightily to motivate students and to assure them that they will achieve whatever standard we set-if they just try hard enough. I no longer believe this. The slogan "All children can learn" is popular today, but empty until we say what "all children can learn." Can all children learn to interpret great literature? Can all learn to play the violin well? Can all learn algebra and geometry in a meaningful way?
Polya, George (circa 1969). The goals of mathematical education. Mathematically Sane. Retrieved 9/16/07: http://mathematicallysane.com/analysis/polya.asp.
Rohrer, Doug and Pashler, Harold (2007). Increasing retention without increasing study time. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Volume 16—Number 4. Retrieved 9/19/07: http://www.pashler.com/Articles/RohrerPashler2007CDPS.pdf.
Science News (2/25/09). Public Schools Outperform Private Schools in Math Instruction. ScienceDaily. Retrieved 2/28/09: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090226093423.htm. Quoting from the article:
- In another “Freakonomics”-style study that turns conventional wisdom about public- versus private-school education on its head, a team of University of Illinois education professors has found that public-school students outperform their private-school classmates on standardized math tests, thanks to two key factors: certified math teachers, and a modern, reform-oriented math curriculum.
- Sarah Lubienski, a professor of curriculum and instruction in the U. of I. College of Education, says teacher certification and reform-oriented teaching practices correlated positively with higher achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam for public-school students.
- “According to our results, schools that hired more certified teachers and had a curriculum that de-emphasized learning by rote tended to do better on standardized math tests,” Lubienski said. “And public schools had more of both.”
Stansbury, Meris (3/3/08). U.S. educators seek lessons from Scandinavia. eSchoolNews. Retrieved 3/5/08: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/top-news/?i=52770;_hbguid=31475690-290f-4e70-8ce4-2742f7b52b83&d=top-news. Quoting from the article:
- A delegation led by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) recently toured Scandinavia in search of answers for how students in that region of the world were able to score so high on a recent international test of math and science skills. They found that educators in Finland, Sweden, and Denmark all cited autonomy, project-based learning, and nationwide broadband internet access as keys to their success.
- What the CoSN delegation didn’t find in those nations were competitive grading, standardized testing, and top-down accountability—all staples of the American education system.
- In all three countries, students start formal schooling at age seven after participating in extensive early-childhood and preschool programs focused on self-reflection and social behavior, rather than academic content. By focusing on self-reflection, students learn to become responsible for their own education, delegates said. [Bold added for emphasis.]
Wiggins, Grant (1990). The case for authentic assessment. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 2(2). Retrieved 9/16/07: http://PAREonline.net/getvn.asp?v=2&n=2.
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