Thursday, June 30, 2011

Learning Math

I am doing a "review of literature" for my very last paper for my MA, which is supposed to be about teaching math to gifted students - or those who have learning difficulties, like Dyscalculia, which I'd never heard about before.
I am getting very tired of review of literature, because almost every promising article or book I look at turns out to have a lot of quotes from other people. So do I have to track down the original, or is it safe to quote the reviewer?

At the same time, I am applying for a job, the reward for all this hard work, and I've already had 3 interviews, which is encouraging. Two of these went well (although I haven't heard back from them yet.)

The third was with the principal of the high school. He asked me how I would teach his 9th and 10th graders Algebra I so they got it (I'm sort of assuming that most have been there at least once before!) so I told him that I've become very interested in Reasoning and Sense-making, which the NCTM is focusing on in many ways, including a summer institute in Orlando I will be attending when this class is done. The principal raised his eye-brows at those words. He seems to believe that kids learn best with the good old-fashioned "drill and kill" that got me dismissed from my student teaching position (when I wouldn't go along with it!) As expected, I was not called back to that school.

One of the articles I've been looking at is How Students Learn: Mathematics in the Classroom from the National Academies Press. I was delighted to read this quote from another source, which corroborates my thinking:
A recent report of the National Research Council, Adding It Up, reviews a broad research base on the teaching and learning of elementary school mathematics. The report argues for an instructional goal of “mathematical proficiency,” a much broader outcome than mastery of procedures. The report argues that five intertwining strands constitute mathematical proficiency:
  1. Conceptual understanding—comprehension of mathematical concepts, operations, and relations
  2. Procedural fluency—skill in carrying out procedures flexibly, accurately, efficiently, and appropriately
  3. Strategic competence—ability to formulate, represent, and solve mathematical problems
  4. Adaptive reasoning—capacity for logical thought, reflection, explanation, and justification
  5. Productive disposition—habitual inclination to see mathematics as sensible, useful, and worthwhile, coupled with a belief in diligence and one’s own efficacy
Note that only one of these mentions "procedures," while the others are about concepts, strategies, adaptive reasoning, and love of math. Not a word about "drill!"

The thing is, a lot of people think that this kind of mathematical thinking is only appropriate for the "gifted" students. The slow ones need drill and kill, evidently, which obviously does kill. These are the students who try and try and try again and don't succeed. Shouldn't we teach them what it's all about, since they don't "get it" through drill alone?

Studies (sorry, I'm not going to look for sources) have proved that students who have been taught to think do better on even multiple choice standardized tests, than students who have memorized all the steps of a procedure. Another quote from the book - observed by John Holt - tells the whole story:
One boy, quite a good student, was working on the problem, “If you have 6 jugs, and you want to put 2/3 of a pint of lemonade into each jug, how much lemonade will you need?” His answer was 18 pints. I said, “How much in each jug?” “Two-thirds of a pint.” I said, “Is that more or less that a pint?” “Less.” I said, “How many jugs are there?” “Six.” I said, “But that [the answer of 18 pints] doesn’t make any sense.” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, that’s the way the system worked out.” Holt argues: “He has long since quit expecting school to make sense. They tell you these facts and rules, and your job is to put them down on paper the way they tell you. Never mind whether they mean anything or not.”
I've been reading that around 50% of gifted students drop out of high school - some figure out other ways to get to college and achieve their potential, others sell hamburgers, or get doped out. We are boring the gifted students with drill and kill, and we aren't helping the weak ones either. Isn't it time for a change?

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