Teaching Profession Opinion

How Not to Stink at Math

By Robert Rothman — August 01, 2014 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply 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.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Reported Essay Teachers Are Not OK, Even Though We Need Them to Be
The pandemic has put teachers through the wringer. Administrators must think about staff well-being differently.
6 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
Teaching Profession We Feel Your Grief: Remembering the 1,000 Plus Educators Who've Died of COVID-19
The heartbreaking tally of lives lost to the coronavirus continues to rise and take a steep toll on school communities.
3 min read
090321 1000 Educators Lost BS
Education Week
Teaching Profession Letter to the Editor Educators Have a Responsibility to Support the Common Good
A science teacher responds to another science teacher's hesitation to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
1 min read
Teaching Profession With Vaccine Mandates on the Rise, Some Teachers May Face Discipline
With a vaccine now fully FDA-approved, more states and districts will likely require school staff get vaccinated. The logistics are tricky.
9 min read
Grace John, who works at a school in San Lorenzo, gets a COVID-19 shot at a mobile vaccination clinic run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state in Hayward, Calif., on Feb. 19, 2021. California will become the first state in the nation to require all teachers and school staff to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. The statewide vaccine mandate for K-12 educators comes as schools return from summer break amid growing concerns of the highly contagious delta variant.
Grace John, who works at a school in San Lorenzo, gets a COVID-19 shot at a mobile vaccination clinic in Hayward, Calif. California is among those states requiring all teachers and school staff to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.
Terry Chea/AP