Best BITs: Wrestling with math in School 2.0

I wrestle with math.  There was a time when I was almost deemed gifted in math in grade 7 and then my grade 8 teacher proposed the concept of integers and it just blew my mind apart.  Later in grade 10 there was that time when I skipped math 23 times and obviously missed a lot of content.  When my good friend Darrin helped me scrape by in grade 11 with a 57%, I closed the door on my studies in math forever.  Yet as an adult I can do my own taxes, and I’m able to keep track in my gradebook, and generally function in my day-to-day living…or so I thought until my son started coming home with math homework.  Max is in grade 7 and is working through grade 4 work.  But having few skills and little passion for the topic, we struggle to do 2 – 3 hours per week of supplementary work.  All of Max’s ambitions are in the sciences and I just know that his options will be limited if we can’t get these math skills upgraded.

Looking around my school I see math being taught in pretty much the same way that I learned it.  Students are taught a new skill or concept over time with the use of a textbook and lots of questions.  Some innovative teachers give each student a whiteboard in order to give immediate feedback.  Fewer teachers use tangibles in a secondary classroom.  The entire department is working towards developing deeper understanding of math concepts in their professional development.  But it continues to distress me that the Ontario math curriculum hasn’t been updated since 2005.

Lehmann and Chase suggest that we need to adopt a similar attitude to Conrad Wolfram:

If it is true that math is part of so many of human innovations, then why do we continue to teach math in isolation rather than as part of other disciplines?  Do you see this changing in your school?  How would you like to see math education change in the future?

Kristy Luker countered my experience with her insight:

I am not sure if I can adequately talk about how Math should be taught when I excelled at Math in school. The methods used worked for me, but I do agree that there is a huge disconnect between what is taught and how we use Math in our everyday lives. In life we often stumble upon the Math, and I agree with Wolfram that it doesn’t present itself as a calculation. We have proceeded in education with the belief that if we focus on teaching children how to solve equations then when presented with problems they will be able to solve them. Unfortunately, students struggle to see what the computation question is in a problem that they need to calculate in the first place. I agree that focusing on critical thinking and extracting the Math out of real life scenarios would help bridge this gap.

We have been sewing a lot lately at our Enrichment & Innovation Centre. We are currently linking it to Science and Social Studies, but I can really see that as students get comfortable with sewing the rich Math that will immerse. The Math will become practical, necessary and real for the students. Fake problems can only get you so far. I can also see the 3D printer and the design programs that can be used with them leading to real life, hands on Math. You should have seen me trying to follow a bread recipe when I didn’t have all the right measuring cups! I was trying to find equivalent fractions! Or how about coding! Gosh the algebraic thinking that goes into creating loops!

Unfortunately, similar to the problems presented for Inquiry teaching, educators need to be comfortable with the notion that not all students may be learning the same thing at the same time. We get hung up on covering curriculum and panic about assessment. We need to discuss ways of tracking student achievement and be provided with the time to truly digest our curriculum. I have said  over and over that one of the reasons that I am comfortable using Inquiry is that I know my curriculum. I see the learning that is happening and understand where it fits on a continuum of learning in order to help create a next step with a student.

I think as educators we have to find a balance between what we know is best pedagogy and what we can manage and handle based on the size of our current classrooms. These leads me to wondering how much changing the student to teacher ratio would and could affect our practices? Many of the methods we use in our classrooms exist as managing techniques. We do things to keep things neat, tidy and predictable. But learning isn’t those things. Learning is MESSY!

Math does need to infiltrate all disciplines to be authentic. It would be best not taught in isolation. Embed it into art, dance, science, social studies etc. . . make it real by pondering real numbers and real questions.”

Kristy and I are both looking forward to your responses.

1 Comment

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  1. Excellent stuff, Alanna. Give Kristy kudos for some good thinking. I share Chris and Zach’s idea that math education should have a purpose, and that purpose should not math itself. Students spend so much time in junior high and high school trying to move vertically through the curriculum. To what end? College of course. But that divorces the meaning from math and for students who don’t see it as fun, the typical question is “why am I doing this?” Math should be a problem-solving too for the real world, and education in math should look like that. I wrote about this on my blog, and about Wolfram’s TED talk six years ago, in November 2010:

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