What works in teaching math

The presidential Mathematics Advisory Panel is supposed to come to some conclusion about what works in teaching math, but constructivists think the group is tilted toward traditionalists.

The panel, which will begin meeting next week, includes several prominent players from both sides of the ongoing debate over whether recent curricular reforms provide students with enough mathematical rigor while also fostering a deeper understanding of the subject.

One camp is represented by two professional mathematicians — Harvard’s Wilfried Schmid and Hung-His Wu of the University of California, Berkeley — who have been vocal critics of the reforms. The other camp’s roster includes Francis “Skip” Fennell, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the nation’s leading math education organization, which has championed many of those reforms, and math educator Deborah Loewenberg Ball of the University of Michigan. But Ball and Schmid are also members of a small group that has pushed to find common ground between the reformers and their critics.

On Edspresso, Barry Garelick argues that teaching content is what matters.

The real issue is about math content, but few people get that yet. Instead, the arguments center around pedagogy and how the brain works—anything except what are the basic facts, skills and concepts of math that students must master (like they do in Asian countries). Maybe that’s why the panel has five psychologists but only two mathematicians. It doesn’t take a PhD in cognitive science to know that to teach students how to think you need to teach them things to think about. Nevertheless, the panel’s discussions about content may be eclipsed by discussions about learning and teaching theory.

. . . What I hope does not happen is that the panel ends up in polite agreement that it’s important to learn facts but then publishes a report recommending that students continue to discover what they haven’t been taught.

The national reading panel’s report proved to be the end of major combat operations in the reading wars. It’s possible this panel could have a similar impact.

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Comments

  1. Foobarista says:

    If math were somehow innate, the Principia Mathematica would have been written on a cave somewhere next to pictures of guys chucking spears at mastadons, and wouldn’t have needed to wait for Sir Issac to write it a few dozen millenia later…

  2. It’s true that the few ideologically rigid individuals on this panel are all oriented twoards “traditional” math instruction rather than “progressive” math instruction.

    In that sense the group isn’t balanced, but I think they will be fine. There are a number of people included (the majority?) willing to move beyond the tired “new vs. traditional” debates and I think they are capable of developing some useful guidelines and recommendations for future policies and research in mathematics education.

  3. Obi-Wandreas says:

    It has been my experience that the constructivist style can be a valuable addition to your teaching arsenal. There are certain algebraic concepts, for example, that it does an exceptionally good job of introducing. It requires, however, a solid foundation and there’s no way to get around that. It’s a good tool, but it can’t be your only way of teaching. Heck, there is no single method that’s best for all situations. Flexibility seems to be the key.

  4. Addendum: unfortunately, I have yet to see a curriculum that doesn’t go either all one way or all the other way.

  5. Mike in Texas says:

    Joanne wrote:

    The national reading panel’s report proved to be the end of major combat operations in the reading wars.

    On what planet? If the math panel is anything like the reading panel it will miraculously discover through some questionable studies that McGraw-Hill and Pearson are already publishing a program that is the cure all for all math ills.

  6. Give it up.

    Whole word in all its wonderous variations has not only proven to be a disaster everywhere it’s been used but it’s also managed to erode such credibility as the public education system could once claim.

    What do you think is driving the education reform movement? McGraw-Hill and Pearson? I’m sure they have a lot of credibility with the poor black parents of Milwaukee.

    It couldn’t possibly be that the people who were most ill-served by the public education system as children are not willing to sacrifice their children to the same system, could it?

    Naw.

    They’ve been led astray, their child-like ignorance taken advantage of by evil corporations. Yeah, that’s got to be it.

    Yeah, that’s got to be it.

  7. Wayne Martin says:

    > It has been my experience that the
    > constructivist style can be a valuable
    > addition to your teaching arsenal.

    Care to provide a couple of concrete examples?

  8. Mike in Texas says:

    Whole word in all its wonderous variations has not only proven to be a disaster everywhere it’s been used but it’s also managed to erode such credibility as the public education system could once claim.

    I’m assuming you meant to say whole language instead of whole world. It was disasterous in California when a politician, appointed as Sec. of Education, demanded it be the only readind program used. Now the politicians in Washington, at the urging of their corporate buddies who just happen to have a phonics program for sale, are demanding phonics only instruction.

    One approache does not work for everyone or even at every grade. By the time a kid is in 2nd or 3rd grade you’ve got to start creating a love for reading in them with quality literature.

  9. Joanne Jacobs says:

    Posted for TypeKey victim:

    I’m not sure how valuable it is to have mathematicians on such a panel. What mathematicians do is pretty far removed from teaching decimals and percents, kind of like asking a professor of medieval English literature how to teach spelling.

    Getting mathematicians involved is why elementary students learn about set theory, Venn diagrams, and matrices instead of long division..

    wahoofive