April 2, 2012

Two questions have been forming in my mind for quite some time. No matter how many people I talk to, or how many conferences I attend, or how many math education organizations I research, these questions remain unanswered. In fact, they become even more confusing.

  1. What will really get more students involved in STEM and cause systemic change in our nation’s education system?
    Half of China’s students go into math, science, or engineering, compared to only 13% of American kids. Our students’ math and science test scores rank among the lowest of developed countries. What can we do to change these discouraging statistics?
  2. What can educators do beyond what they do in the classroom?
    Only a handful of people are involved in creating long-term systemic change in math education by doing research and forming policies, and many of these people have never been teachers. There must be something more that all teachers can do, as their insights are invaluable to the process of reforming education.

There are many different answers to these questions. These opinions then dictate what is currently being done. Researchers and entrepreneurs all have their own ideas about how to improve math education. Take Mathalicious for example. Karim Ani, founder and director, believes that math lessons should be applicable to real-world situations; not a series of algorithms that students should memorize. Mathalicious offers a multitude of engaging lessons that allow students to make discoveries about the world and in the process, use and learn math.

Another example is Khan Academy. In Salman Khan’s online video lessons, he explains topics conversationally and thoroughly, and his thousands of videos are free and easy to access – a huge benefit to many students and teachers. However, the videos teach the same mechanical processes that have been proven to be ineffective. This may help students become better at memorizing these processes, but this is not a long-term solution.*

Others are doing research and sharing their findings, like Stanford University professors Jo Boaler and Keith Devlin. Jo’s book What’s Math Got To Do With It? describes the problems with rote memorization as the only learning strategy. Keith’s book Mathematics Education For a New Era suggests that students can learn by playing video games that simulate real-life situations that require math.

Many educators have realized that simply following a textbook often constrains innovative use of math in the classroom. This is why Henri Picciotto, a math teacher at The Urban School of San Francisco, started the Escape From the Textbook! community. Teachers can collaborate in an online forum or meet in person for monthly gatherings. There are many such professional development opportunities in which teachers learn from their colleagues.

Yet another effort is the creation of new curricula aligned to the Common Core State Standards. I write mathematics curricula that will be made into digital textbooks. I recently completed a ninth-grade statistics unit meant to last for one month. Statistics, one of the most applied types of math, is currently rarely taught in high school. Many believe that we need to break the mold that dictates what and when students learn.** Critics say our nation’s education system is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Many are pushing for a greater focus on math concepts that are really important, like statistics and algebra. More time on fewer (but important) topics will allow for greater conceptual understanding; with this, students can fill in the gaps.

Back to the primary questions: How do we know that what we are all working toward is something that will put our students at the top of international ranks? We are far from having a consensus on the answer, even amongst the handful of people who are at the brink of creating long-term systemic change. Until we have a consensus, it remains unclear how those outside this handful can be part of creating the necessary changes.

Stay tuned for my next post where I will share my solution to these issues.

*Karim wrote an excellent blog post on the Mathalicious site that shares this opinion and goes more in depth. I strongly encourage you to read it.

**Should Algebra be taught in the eighth grade? This question has sparked a lot of controversy.

5 thoughts on “Moving Forward, We Need a Consensus

  1. I believe that the problem is that kids don’t enjoy math. For youngsters, they perform much better in subjects they enjoy. Here is a sample video of how to make math more engaging and fun, even when learning something as dry as the Pythagorean Theorem.

    1. Thanks for sharing this video. While it is entertaining to see and hear Darth Vader, I don’t think a video like this is more effective than a teacher (otherwise, maybe the teacher should dress up as Darth Vader?) and definitely not as effective as, say, a project in which students determine which length of a ladder they should get in order to climb to the roof of a 20-foot house.

      I also dislike the standard way of teaching the Pythagorean Theorem, which is by always calling the legs a and b and the hypotenuse c. Students think they must memorize “a squared plus b squared equals c squared,” but emphasis should be shifted from memorization to understanding.

  2. “Half of China’s students go into math, science, or engineering, compared to only 13% of American kids.”….
    Isnt this simply because (compared to other professions in China) engineering and science based jobs pay quite well; unlike in US?

    China’s education system isnt better, and it doesnt matter how science education is improved in US. Math/science require commitment, and unless the payoff is there (ie higher paying jobs compared to other professions), students will continue ignoring math/science in favor of law/management/politics

    1. I also think that fewer American students go into STEM professions because their value is de-emphasized as the number of these jobs diminishes due to increased outsourcing. One way in which the value of STEM jobs is de-emphasized is that students have fewer role models in these fields as more and more of these jobs are outsourced to countries like China and India. It’s a cycle: middle-class, technology jobs are outsourced –> fewer students aspire to these professions –> fewer students see the value of studying STEM topics –> fewer Americans have these skills –> more tech jobs are outsourced because the skills can’t be found here. And the cycle repeats. I see a direct relationship between the lack of students in STEM and the disappearing middle class. This cycle is dividing US citizens into rich and poor.

  3. I am interested in joining this project, but I could not find other means to contact you. I saw your job post in UC Berkeley’s Eta Kappa Nu (EECS honor society). Can you email me back please?

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