Saturday, January 11, 2014

On the New Math

Elizabeth Renzetti has a funny and somewhat insightful article in the Globe & Mail today about our obsession with math.

In a nutshell, we're equating math with jobs.  She says,
"The problem is that we have started to think of our children as future employees, even the ones who can't yet put on their own snow suits, and the world as increasily Hobbesian battle for a few good slots in the matrix."
Math isn't all there is to life; it's true.  And I think it's folly to compare ourselves with China and other countries where the culture is a huge factor in their math scores.  We've chosen to raise children who hang out with friends and family in the evenings and on weekends.  There's no teaching method that will have Canada rise above a country that praises a 24/7 work ethic.  We can't have both, and I think we made the better choice on that one.

But what Renzetti doesn't talk about is another reason for the recent concerns:  the way math is being taught now.  It's a shift from rote learning of basics to "conceptual-based" math.  Let's take multiplication as an example.  We all used to learn one standard way to multiply two-digit numbers, now there are a variety of strategies.  Sometimes more strategies is better, but sometimes it's just confusing and unnecessary.  As one math prof says,
"The lack of structure in the curriculum really interferes with the students' ability to become procedurally competent enough, so when they're challenged with higher level math, their working memory overloads, and they're completely confused and can't cope. But it's not because the children are stupid or unable [to do it]. It's just that the structure of the learning experience has been too casual."
That one method that was drilled in our heads was - and is - very effective.  And now that we're seeing that this new way that offers numerous strategies and requires written explanations to prove understand - "Why does 7 x 6 equal 42?" - isn't working as well as we hoped, and the numbers are starting to look bad for us, hopefully we'll switch back.

I know it's new, but prove to me that it's improved, because the two don't always go together.

The same thing happened when I was a kid, and we learned a 44-letter alphabet to teach us how to read better.  Luckily, my mom taught me to read at home already, but I still can't spell worth beans.  When that failed across the board, we went back to regular phonetic learning for an interim until some guru discovered the "whole language" method - which was also a disaster.  We're currently back to sounding out words again because it's worked for a really, really long time.

It's great for kids to be able to follow their passion and learn to love school because it's so creative and fun, but the basic fundamentals take some repetitive drilling to really stick.  And that's okay.  Drills aren't the enemy.  School doesn't have to be fun and exciting all the time.  Sometimes a little tedious work is good for us!   And a mix of teacher-driven mandatory lessons with student-driven creativity has lasted the test of time. 

But, one thing really bugs me about all this:  Nobody is accountable for introducing a method that didn't have multiple examples of impressive, significant, peer-reviewed research conducted by persons independent of profit-driven education-materials production companies.  If we're going to make sweeping changes to the way we teach, it better be because we have solid proof that the new way really IS better.  But, when there isn't, it's nobody's fault that the education - and sometimes the livelihood - of many students has been messed up.  It's nobody's responsibility.  The buck stops nowhere.

Parents, and sometimes the Minister of Ed, will blame the teachers, but the teachers have to follow the curriculum and current procedural fads.  The cleverer ones might sneak in the old ways alongside the new methods, but that's the best they can do.  A decade ago, my son's french immersion math teach sent home regular math homework in English (shhh) so the kids wouldn't get behind because of the language.  I loved her for that!

I recently saw The Wolf of Wall Street.  It's a great piece of entertainment, and, in the end, the top guys get busted.  We like it in a story when people pay for the mistakes they made.  But in education, the Minister of Ed, often someone with little knowledge of teaching beyond having been in a school decades earlier, approves the new rules then walks away.  It's like a general, who's never seen the front lines, giving orders to the troops - a little dubious at best.  They see the big picture, but sometimes they don't entirely understand what it's like on the ground.  And the fallout is a matter of numbers, statistics, not real people struggling to manage the next grade when they couldn't get their heads around the previous one.

But I'm old school.  I use a blackboard instead of power points.  I tell kids stuff, get them to work with the ideas in a variety of ways, remind them of the stuff over and over, quiz them orally from time to time, then give them a test on it.  And for the most part they learn it.  I'm encouraged to play more games and spend more time on computers and give lots of freedom and choices with the teacher no longer at the front of the room.  I tried that for a couple years, and it's not nearly as effective.  That is to say, it wasn't as effective in my class, but a different teacher might do better with computers and games and student-run classrooms. Teachers see first hand what works and what doesn't for them.  But we get little say in the decision-making.  When we figure out what works for us, we should be allowed to run with it always with an eye on current studies.

Renzetti closes with a call to relax from a NYU education prof who clarifies, "[Math] scores tell us nothing about the students' imagination, their drive, their ability to ask good questions, their insight, their inventiveness, their creativity."

True that, but I still want my kids to know how to multiply.


fillyjonk said...

(Surfed over here from Dustbury).

I'm a college prof. I use lecture all the time. (I'm in the STEM field). I regularly get guff from people who tell me I MUST "flip" my classroom, or go student-centric, or something else other than lecture. "Lecture is dead" they tell me.

Really? I get high evaluations after 15 years of lecturing. My students come back and thank me for the preparation they got in my classes. I've tried implementing something like a flipped classroom - where I expected the students to read and prepare and essentially cover the lecture out of class, and then come and discuss, and it just didn't work for me or with my students. (I hate one-size-fits all solutions anyway).

I came up through school in the 1970s, where there were still teachers who did drill. I kind of hated it sometimes but I did learn my stuff. The idea that school should always be fun and entertaining is similar to the ideas pushed by the "do what you love and you'll never have to feel like work is WORK" crowd - a myth. I love teaching but there are still things about being a prof that are awful and tedious and that I'd rather not do. But that's part of being a grown-up.

Sue D said...

Excellent blog.

Anonymous said...

I get high evaluations after 15 years of lecturing.
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