On The Front Lines of Math Education
To say that math education is in a state of flux and massive change is an understatement. As politicians, parents, teachers and even celebrities draw their battle lines in the testing and Common Core war, there is an ever-increasing need to not only define the future of math ed, but to genuinely understand what is actually happening inside the math classroom during this turbulent transition.
Last week, in a blog post for The Teaching Channel, writer Gretchen Vierstra (@grentchenvee) attempts to answer the daunting question: “What does math look like in today’s classroom?” by posing the question to several math educators who offer honest and compelling insight into what’s working and what’s needed in today’s math class:
“The Common Core has shifted how I teach math because I really try to get the mathematical practices — or what I call “thinking” — into the classroom as much as possible. My classroom is a very busy place, with students in small groups all of the time. I give the students multiple ways to experience the mathematics, such as print, presentations, videos, interactive sites, answers, and solutions. I challenge them to think about it, talk about it… The math in my classroom is messy, noisy, and looks a little like organized chaos, but there is a great deal of thinking going on.” — April Pforts, Math Teacher, Mt. Pleasant Community High School, IA
“For the past 20 years, I taught the steps and even the tips and tricks to remember to solve for answers. But let’s face it, I’m not teaching the kids of today to be calculators, I’m teaching them to be mathematicians! In my classroom, I hear first graders explain and justify their thinking on a daily basis.” — Jeanne Wright, First Grade Teacher, Cypress Creek Elementary, FL
“For years, my fellow math teachers and I would discuss how our content was a mile wide and an inch deep. That feeling shifted when Kentucky was the first state to adopt the Common Core Standards. This shift meant that I needed to become more of a facilitator of learning. Now my students and I focus more on the how and why something — perhaps even a strategy — works.” — Susie Morehead, Math Teacher, Turkey Foot Middle School, Kenton County, KY
Viestra’s post sums up a basic trend that many math teachers are seeing: next-generation math education is finally being embraced and taught in a way that is relevant to students, by becoming hands-on, encouraging collaboration, and encouraging “productive struggle.” When it comes to teaching problem-based math on the front lines in today’s classrooms, the struggle is real, but the rewards are greater.
In fact, in a recent research survey from Johns Hopkins University, two key findings were determined to lead to student success in the math classroom:
- Programs designed to change daily teaching practices – particularly through the use of cooperative learning, classroom management, and motivations programs – which have larger impacts on student achievement than programs that emphasize textbooks or technology alone; and
- Programs that encourage student interaction. (Robert E. Slavin,”Educator’s Guide: What Works in Teaching Math“)
There’s Something About Alice!
Etowah High School Math teacher, Teri Owens (@OwensTeri), gives us a revealing and inspiring look inside her math classroom in a blog series on implementing new math curriculum. In her most recent post (Having Your Cake and Drinking It Too), Teri shares her “aha” moment introducing a new IMP-Meaningful Math curriculum unit called “All About Alice”, which provides a new framework for students to learn about exponents. In the exercise, students take the fabled character from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and apply math concepts to her fantastical journey. Owens admits that she was pleasantly surprised at what she learned, as much as she was by what her students learned:
“When I saw that the teacher’s guide allowed 60 minutes for this activity, I thought there was no way. I thought we would get through it quicker…ha! We didn’t even finish, and we had OVER an hour [of instruction]. This activity helps the students to explore and HOPEFULLY discover the rule for dividing powers with the same base. I love it! It is really revealing the lack of number sense that my students have.” — Teri Owens (“Having Your Cake and Drinking it Too“)
The love of problem-based math curricula is growing. But what is really driving this movement towards student-centered, collaborative learning in math classes today?
David Birchler (Program Coordinator for Mathematics at IT’S ABOUT TIME®) believes the key to successfully preparing students for 21st Century learning is the change in focus to authentic learning over memorization, and using real-world problems that students can relate to and solve:
“IMP/Meaningful Math embeds the math in context so the students don’t even realize they are learning math—they learn the ideas before formalizing the concepts. Take the “All About Alice” unit, where students learn about exponents in the context of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Understanding 2^3 * 2^5 = 2^8 can be a difficult concept for students to grasp, but by applying a tangibility to the mathematics in the form of growing and shrinking due to magical cake and drink, students receive a framework to contextualize the problem. Now the question is not what is the result of the string of numbers and symbols to the left of the equals sign. The question is, “What happens to Alice when she eats magical cake or drinks magical drink?”. It is much easier for students to work within this framework and much easier to identify whether their answer makes sense or not. It provides a shared context for the students to collaborate and to converse about mathematics as well. The curriculum challenges all students in a way that they can handle, and with a little guidance, they learn to enjoy the challenge. Just as importantly, they learn math is fun, math is important, and math is accessible.” — David Birchler
Here’s a peak at the All About Alice unit, Having Your Cake and Drink It Too, that Teri Owens (and math teachers across the country) is expertly implementing in her math classroom and a look at math inside Robin Corrozi’s classroom at Cape Henlopen High School in Delaware:
Free Activity Sample “Having Your Cake and Eating It Too“: DOWNLOAD
The Writing on the Wall
Math education is changing. A look inside classrooms across the country shows us that collaborative, engaging, problem-based teaching is replacing “stand-and-deliver,” disengaged methods of the past that did more to instill math phobias in students, than a core understanding of math concepts. Both teachers and students are being pushed out of their comfort zones and the results should be enough to give everyone hope. But don’t take our word for it, just take a look inside of the math classrooms in your district. What does math look like in those classrooms?
For questions or more info on “All About Alice” and IMP Meaningful Math, feel free to reach out to David Birchler (Program Coordinator for Mathematics at IT’S ABOUT TIME®) at: Email – firstname.lastname@example.org Tel – 914-273-2233
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