Saturday, September 2, 2017

Everyone has an Opinion

As a math educator there is nothing I dread more than the wrath of opinions sent my way when standardized tests scores are released (not to mention the fact the it seems to get worse every year...somehow the media gets hold of results before they are public). Everyone has an opinion. And they are entitled to one.

But it does not make them an expert.

It is easy to sit at the sidelines and put blame on someone else - teachers, the curriculum, and the like. Currently most of them blame is on the curriculum and/or so-called "discovery math" instruction.

The Curriculum

Standardized expectations set by the ministry that is publicly available here.

Now I do not ever call myself a math ed expert. My experience is limited to Ontario in grade 9-12 with a bit of tutoring at the grade 6 level. This is the only experience I can speak from. But I am sure I could find many colleagues (elementary and secondary) that would agree that there is too much emphasis on math content. Every grade level is loaded with content that is needed and content has always been in the drivers seat. Elementary grades have to cover content in 5 areas each with a multitude of specific expectations to get to.

Flip to the front matter of either sets of curricula and you will find 7 Mathematical Processes. These are supposed to be the lens through which math is taught - and we need to remind each other of this. Perhaps a redesign of curriculum to make this front matter the meat of each grade would be beneficial. Check out BC's new curriculum - it is competency focused. I am sure it is not perfect, but frankly, it is genius.

You won't catch me claiming that the curriculum does not need to be revisited.

"Discovery Math"

I use the phrase discovery learning in quotations because it is misunderstood by most people. It is over-simplified into this little box definition and believed by many to mean that we give students a problem and then never help them. This is a myth.

I am sure that there is a lot of support needed for teachers to embrace the research behind "purposeful struggle" and I am also willing to go out on a limb and guess that there are many teachers teaching math who are not comfortable doing it (I have friends who would attest to this) and are probably even less comfortable with embracing a different way of teaching. But discovery math is not to blame.

We absolutely need learners to play with numbers and learn ways that they are related. They need to find the number sense within them. Math is not as simple as we make it out to be. It is not a bunch of facts that we memorize and use without understanding (lack of understanding leads to mistakes!) - hey you might be good at arithmetic, but this does not a mathematician make. We need to develop a future filled with people who can problem solve, use logic, reflect and communicate - we do not need a future of human calculators.

Using traditional teaching forced me to always tell kids what to do and how to do it. I could tell them why, but to them why was not important. Students got a lesson and then practiced that work. They only worked on that one skill and never made connections to other ideas. Traditional teaching forced me to teach to the middle of the class and made differentiation nearly impossible.

Discovery math allows me to do a variety of things and to differentiate my classroom. Research supports learning as a complex structure that requires much more than memorizing (and even the parts you do need to "remember" need to be forgotten and recalled many times to bring them into long-term memory). In fact, learning is one of the most counter-intuitive things I know. I bet most people can come up with at least one example of something they thought they had learned only later to realize they had tricked themselves into it - only their short term memory had any idea at the time. By using a discovery approach students have to struggle with ideas (makes learning seem like it takes more effort to achieve - because it does - but lasts a lot longer and leads to making connections to ideas already understood) but they get to do it in an environment with 29 of their peers and a learning coach to help out when the "struggle" moves from purposeful to frustrated.

Don't get me wrong. I don't have an answer. And there isn't a simple one. I cannot tell you why only 50% of last year's grade 6 students met the provincial expectations (but I can tell you that these tests are not straight-forward and disadvantage many groups of students).

I have rambled at this point and could keep going. I could justify every decision that I made in deciding how I would be running my classroom this year. We don't make these decisions on a whim. We do not do them just because someone tells us to.

One opinion writer this week wrote that the one thing that has not changed are kids - that kids are still kids, capable of learning. This is an oversimplification of a very complex discussion - I could easily disagree with her. But one thing is for sure.

We do it for the kids. Every day.

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