I was an English major as an undergrad for a reason. I had a lifelong fear of numbers, and I couldn’t wait to leave all that behind and study literature and film. Not surprisingly, I became an English and language arts teacher. And I loved it.
So I reluctantly agreed to teach math (I fancied myself a team player). And you know what? I found that math is taught and learned differently than it was when I was a kid. As a result, I finally understood it. The new math was empowering. And I loved teaching it even more than teaching English.
Ironically, I came to love math for the very reason many parents today hate it. Because it is taught so differently now, parents often don’t feel confident about helping their kids with their math homework. So they reject it.
But it isn’t.
I would argue that math today is taught in a way that allows many more students to learn and actually enjoy it. I grew up in an environment in which math was taught one way: rote memorization of facts, followed by computation as practice. Unit by unit. Concept by concept. Some kids excelled in that environment. Many more did not. As a result, some kids liked math, but many others, like me, dreaded it.
We know that no two brains are alike and no two students learn the same way. So why only teach math one way? Why not teach multiple algorithms and approaches in a quest to reach many more kids? It just makes sense to me.
Math is now taught in a much more effective way. This video from Dr. Shah of Math Plus Academy provides a great explanation for parents as a starting point.
Today, our goal as math teachers is to teach students how numbers work together. Many of today’s programs are spiraling—several different concepts taught in a week without expectation of mastery. It’s about exposure. Over time, concepts are revisited again and again and after a period of months and years, students start to understand the relationship between numbers and concepts and how it all fits into their everyday lives.
And it is working. I have generally seen students’ math scores spiking on standardized tests in 7th and 8th grades after several years of spiraling math instruction. A recent article in The Atlantic entitled “The Math Revolution” reports a surge in the number of American teens who excel in advanced math and points to a “new pedagogical ecosystem” as being responsible. While the article focuses on the plethora of extracurricular opportunities in math (summer math camps, online academies, etc.), it isn’t unreasonable to draw a correlation between this success and these new spiraling curriculums and approaches.
Schools should consider regularly hosting math nights/mornings for parents in an effort to enlighten adults on how math is taught to their children. We hosted a math morning last school year and, not surprisingly, it was by far our best-attended parent event of the school year.
We are creating “mathletes” who are critical thinkers and creative problem solvers—not mere calculators. My phone has a calculator. The goal for students is not to be done the quickest, but to have a deep understanding.
As I think about it, that’s the goal of all subjects or disciplines. So why should math be any different?