5 September 2008 10:00 AM

Teaching Math

by Dr. Rick

An interesting and timely article in the Washington Post recently looks at the issues surrounding one of education’s most constant conundrums: how to teach math. Reporter Daniel de Vise investigates topics ranging from teaching methods, text books, math standards, and teacher preparation to age-old questions such as “How much math is enough math?”


Teaching methods and text books are what students and parents experience first-hand daily (and nightly, at homework time). Today’s classrooms typically engage in “discovery” learning, with many hands-on and exploratory activities. To the uninitiated, these classrooms can seem chaotic. (And for the weak teachers, they usually are.)  Textbooks are often supplemented with activities and “manipulatives,” real and touchable objects that students manipulate to count, add, subtract, multiply, and divide. 


Mathematicians claim there’s not enough depth to math instruction, too much “fun and games” and not enough content. Educators claim students don’t learn much from memorizing facts. Parents worry when their children have trouble with the most basic math.


de Vise finds what we in the classrooms and parents at home have known for years: there’s a wide divergence of opinion on just about every aspect of math instruction. Are there too many math standards or too few? (My home state of Maryland, according to de Vise, has sixty-seven standards for fourth graders alone. Some states have more. Some have fewer.) Is there too much discovery learning and not enough textbook-centered, structured lessons? Are teachers adequately prepared to teach math? Are upper-level math courses being taught too early? Too late?


I’m not a math teacher, but I’ve been an educator long enough to know good teaching when I see it and to recognize false arguments when I hear them. People’s opinions about the teaching of math are full of personal prejudices and professional preferences, just as with any other subject. (Reading is a “Sargasso Sea” of differing opinions, for example.)


The truth (readily seen by any parent with more than one child) is that some children learn best when they’re “exploring,” and “investigating,” when they’re out of their seats and working in teams to solve real-life problems. Other children learn best when they’re working in more structured ways, being led by a teacher in step-by-step lessons and then learning how these lessons relate to real life.


The truth is that for some children math instruction is too much and too early. They need to focus on fewer standards and get a deeper understanding before they move to the next skill levels. Other children don’t need as much time.

 The truth is that many teachers are wonderfully capable of, well, working wonders with all levels of math learners. They’re patient, knowledgeable about math concepts and equally knowledgeable about pedagogy and student learning. Other teachers, not so much. Forgive an overgeneralization, but to end the bickering between teachers and mathematicians, teachers must learn more about math and mathematicians must learn more about teaching. 

Next week, I’ll finish up my thoughts on teaching math…


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