Teaching Profession Opinion

How Not to Stink at Math

By Robert Rothman — August 01, 2014 3 min read
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The edu-world has been abuzz over Elizabeth Green’s cover story in the July 27 New York Times Magazine (“Q: Why Does Everyone Hate the New Math? A: Because No One Understands It--Not Even the Teachers,” or, as it was posted on line, “Why Americans Stink at Math”). Green’s article, an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Building a Better Teacher, showed that American students’ well-documented poor performance in mathematics stems in large part from the way teachers tend to teach it--an endless series of procedures, rather than a way of understanding the world.

This finding is not new, and as Green writes, the Common Core State Standards, which stress conceptual understanding and problem-solving, as well as procedural knowledge, is but the latest attempt to transform math instruction. But she warns that this effort could fail--like the New Math of the 1960s--unless teachers are prepared to teach in new ways.

Green notes that some teachers have transformed their instruction and do manage to teach students to understand math concepts--but these teachers live thousands of miles from the U.S. Teachers in Japan run their classrooms quite differently from the way American teachers do. Rather than introduce a new procedure, lead the class in trying it out, and then have students practice on their own (“I, We, You”), the typical American approach, Japanese teachers tend to introduce a single problem, let students try it on their own, have them discuss it in peer groups, and then go over it as a whole class (“You,Y’all, We”). The result, as international assessments have shown for decades, is very high math performance.

As Green notes, Japanese teachers did not arrive at this approach on their own. In fact, they learned about it from American reformers. And there are a number of math educators in the U.S. who use a similar approach.

But she also notes that Japanese schools are much better structured than American schools to enable teachers to learn and apply new techniques. In the U.S., as many researchers have noted, teachers tend to be isolated in their classrooms, essentially asked to come up with their curriculum and pedagogy on their own. In Japan, by contrast, teachers work together to develop lessons, try them out, examine the results, and refine them. This practice is known as jugyokenkyu, or “lesson study.” As Green writes, “The practice is so pervasive in Japanese schools that it is like the PA interruption to Americans: effectively invisible....[A]sking if schools had jugyokenkyu in America would be like asking if they had students.”

Improving instruction so that students can learn deeply, then, requires schools to organize themselves so that teachers can collaborate and develop and improve lessons together. Schools that are organized for deeper learning tend to do this. As Monica Martinez, who wrote a previous post on this blog, and Dennis McGrath write in their new book, Deeper Learning, schools in which students learn deeply create a “community of learners” that includes teachers. These schools provide time for teachers to work together. As they write, “Again and again we saw teachers model collaboration for their students every day, as they worked together to design curriculum, exchange ideas about daily practices, and keep track of individual projects.”

Indeed, some have created physical structures to make collaboration possible. At Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, for example, there is a long desk at a central location near the principal’s office. “The availability of the table,” Martinez and McGrath write, “allows teachers to easily meet together and confer about students or joint projects.”

Unfortunately, these practices remain the exception in American schools. And they will stay exceptional as long as Americans retain the belief that teaching is a gift that individuals either have or don’t have, rather than a skill that can be taught and learned. Green’s article and book make a strong case that teaching excellence can be taught, and the discussion around her piece is a welcome sign. If Americans don’t want students to stink at math (or anything else), and to learn deeply, it’s past time to take her argument seriously.

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