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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Math wars: What does the 'science of math' say about what works?

Jayden can't read a simple story problem. Mia can't subtract, if she knew that she should be subtracting. Peyton could no more find a common denominator than discover the Fountain of Youth.

People are fighting over who takes algebra in what grade and whether to push students toward calculus or statistics. But a growing number of students lack basic math skills, and a majority aren't "proficient" according to the National Assessment of Education Progress.

"Science of math" advocates hope to transform math teaching, reports Hechinger's Jill Barshay. They are inspired by the "science of reading" movement, which has pushed for structured, systematic, phonics-first instruction based on research on what works.

In Myths that Undermine Math Teaching, published last year, Sarah Powell of the University of Texas, Elizabeth Hughes of Penn State and Corey Peltier at the University of Oklahoma critiqued the "teaching practices recommended by the influential National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and Jo Boaler, a controversial professor of math education at Stanford," writes Barshay.

For example, "research shows that children learn best when new topics begin with direct explanations from teachers who teach procedures and formulas alongside concepts," Powell believes. "Then students practice mastering them."

Science of math advocates think children don't need to understand mathematical concepts before they learn to calculate, and that algorithms won't stunt their mental growth.

They said that inquiry-based learning, where teachers encourage students to discover answers for themselves, is often not the best way to teach while explicit, direct instruction usually is. Forcing students to struggle with problems that they not only don’t know how to solve, but also haven’t mastered the tools needed to do so, isn’t helpful. Timed tests? It’s important, the researchers said, for students to master their sums and multiplication tables in order to free up the brain’s working memory to learn more complicated concepts. Periodic timed tests help teachers measure whether students are building speed and accuracy.

This is heresy.

Barshay interviewed Boaler, who said the "myths" article "cherry-picked" the research.

NCTM's president, Kevin Dykema, a middle-school math teacher, charges that "the science of math is so focused on rote memorization.” Many students "think that math is a bunch of isolated skills that need to be memorized, and they don’t see any value in learning it.” NCTM has come out against students memorizing the multiplication tables.

Powell's specialty is special education, not math. She points out that parents of students with dyslexia sparked the "science of reading" movement.

Teaching methods that may work for very bright, motivated students -- the ones who don't need much teaching -- may fail students who need structured lessons. They won't figure it out on their own.

It must be 40 years since I first heard that teachers should be "a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage." The full quote, by the way, refers to "a teacher of the gifted and talented."

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