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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Making Sense of Math and Science: It’s Elementary

By Zachary Champagne — July 15, 2011 3 min read
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Note: Zak Champagne, an award-winning teacher in Jacksonville, Florida, is guest-posting this week.

So I have spent my week guest blogging about a few topics that have been at the forefront of my mind during my career as an educator and I cannot thank each of you enough for your considerate affirmations and thoughtful critiques of my posts. You have confirmed that I am not alone in these thoughts and also challenged many of my existing ideas.

I have one last topic that I’d like to comment on and it is one that is at the core of my existence as a teacher. I would like to share with you my thoughts on math and science education in the elementary grades.

I have spent a great deal of time researching and working on understanding the most effective ways to teach mathematics and science concepts to elementary students, as well as ways to inspire my students to love mathematics and science. There is abundant research documenting the need for America’s students to improve their understanding of mathematics and science, and this research has led me to understand that we must change the way we instruct our students in mathematics and science.

There are many students who do not enjoy mathematics and science and our students are currently not as successful as other industrialized countries. This poses a frightening national risk. What I have learned about the students I have taught throughout my career is that the trend begins with students as young as 8 or 9 who have already been turned off to mathematics and science. They have been taught from societal experiences, home events, and by our teachers, that the subjects of mathematics and science are about solving a large numbers of problems as quickly as possible or reading large passages from a textbook. It is this type of instruction that is stifling our children’s natural desire to make sense of the world with mathematics and science. I consider this is a major issue in public education right now, and I feel that we must begin to work with our teachers and our communities to begin systematic change in these areas of education.

Because I am facing fourth and fifth graders who are already turned off to mathematics and science, I have recently begun working with primary grade teachers and students. My work has focused on learning how teachers in grades K-2 instruct their students and how those students respond to various types of instruction. The most amazing realization I have had is that our young students do not dislike mathematics and science. I had forgotten young students’ natural inclination to want to learn more about mathematics and science in order to make sense of the world. It has become clear to me that we as teachers are at least partially responsible for our students beginning to “hate” mathematics and science. Our instruction must change to allow our students a fundamental understanding of important mathematics and science concepts and we must do this in ways that continue to keep our students excited about these naturally interesting subjects. Jo Boaler, in her book What’s Math Got to Do With It?, supports these ideas by stating, “Mathematics is widely hated among adults because of their school experiences, and most adults avoid mathematics at all costs. Yet the advent of new technologies means that all adults now need to be able to reason mathematically in order to work and live in today’s society.”

I think it is absolutely imperative that we, as elementary educators, realize the overwhelming nature of this challenge. We must realize the importance of elementary mathematics and science instruction and the fact that we must provide solid foundational experiences for our students that not only teach them, but inspire them to love these subjects. We have to remember that math and science naturally make sense! This can and should be communicated to students through engaging lessons with hands on/minds on experiences. In other words, if we do not get our elementary students motivated to study these subjects, then we are facing an uphill battle as we continue our goal that ALL students feel confident and become successful in mathematics and science.

--Zak Champagne

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.