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Streamlining and upgrading math instruction

March 13, 2008, 8:09 pm

A federal panel examining K-8 mathematics education in the USA has made some forthright recommendations, according to this article in the NYT today. Unlike many federal panels, this one has an uncommon amount of common sense in its conclusions. For example, this finding that is striking in the way it refrains from choosing sides in the math wars:

Parents and teachers in school districts across the country have fought passionately over the relative merits of traditional, or teacher-directed, instruction, in which students are told how to solve problems and then are drilled on them, as opposed to reform or child-centered instruction, which emphasizes student exploration and conceptual understanding. The panel said both methods have a role.

“There is no basis in research for favoring teacher-based or student-centered instruction,” said Dr. Larry R. Faulkner, the chairman of the panel, at a briefing for reporters on Wednesday. “People may retain their strongly held philosophical inclinations, but the research does not show that either is better than the other.” [...]

“To prepare students for algebra, the curriculum must simultaneously develop conceptual understanding, computational fluency and problem-solving skills,” the report said. “Debates regarding the relative importance of these aspects of mathematical knowledge are misguided. These capabilities are mutually supportive.”

Say what? An appeal to actual research rather than anecdotes and personal biases when thinking about effective math teaching? Amazing. And this shocking discovery:

[T]he panel found that it is important for students to master their basic math facts by heart.

“For all content areas, practice allows students to achieve automaticity of basic skills — the fast, accurate, and effortless processing of content information — which frees up working memory for more complex aspects of problem solving,” the report said.

Dr. Faulkner, a former president of the University of Texas at Austin, said the panel “buys the notion from cognitive science that kids have to know the facts.”

“In the language of cognitive science, working memory needs to be predominately dedicated to new material in order to have a learning progression, and previously addressed material needs to be in long-term memory,” he said.

Why, it’s almost as if they think that mastery precedes creativity or something. And finally:

The report makes a plea for shorter and more accurate math textbooks. Given the shortage of elementary teachers with a solid grounding in math, the report recommends further research on the use of math specialists to teach several different elementary grades, as is done in many top-performing nations.

The article goes on to give some of the panel’s recommended benchmarks for mathematical skills in grades 3-7. There’s also a link to the panel’s report.

All I can say is that I hope math educators, prospective teachers (especially prospective elementary school teachers), curriculum designers, ed schools, school boards, and everybody else who is a stakeholder with some influence in this process are listening. We’ve got 2 years until our oldest starts kindergarten and she needs teachers and curricula who get math right.

[h/t God Plays Dice]

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