Thursday, August 4, 2011

Math is Reasoning and Sense Making

When I was a "pupil" in elementary school, we had a subject called "arithmetic." We learned to add, subtract, multiply, do fractions, percentages and convert from inches to rods, and similar activities. Sometime we had word problems. For some reason, this subject interested me. Or maybe it was science that interested me, and science needs math.
In high school we had 2 years of Algebra, Plane, Solid and Analytic Geometry and then Trigonometry, which I looked forward to, because Dad was an engineer and loved to survey things, which involved trig. None of this was called mathematics, as far as I can remember. That was something I would learn in college.
College came, along with math. Suddenly I was expected to understand very abstract thinking, which I had no training for. It took me a week to understand the necessary predecessor of Calculus: Limits, which is hard to comprehend, now that I know what they are. I expect we were given the definition in all its glory,
DEFINITION: The statement tex2html_wrap_inline83 has the following precise definition.
Given any real number tex2html_wrap_inline85 , there exists another real number tex2html_wrap_inline87 so that
if tex2html_wrap_inline89 , then tex2html_wrap_inline91 .
Now there are all sorts of ways to ensure that limits and other math concepts make sense, for example this new tool in the NCTM Illuminations collection of lesson plans and activities: Illuminations: Interactive Calculus Tool. Why are teachers still befuddling their students with definitions and procedures to be memorized instead of helping them reason their way to a point where math actually can make sense?
There are far more students taking Algebra and Geometry now than when I went to school. I guess we were somehow motivated to learn it because it was required for college, and those who took it were planning to go to college (about 40% of my suburban high school class. Far fewer from the inner city high school.)
Research has shown that all (i.e. most) students can learn Algebra and Geometry, and many schools are now requiring the 4 years of math in high school that we "college prep" students had back in the late 50's. But I don't think they are motivated in the same way we were.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) has been on to this for many years (even before I went to school.) In his closing words at the summer Institute on Reasoning and Sense Making, NCTM 's president Michael Shaughnessy offered several quotes about using reasoning in math instruction, that went back to 1830, which he included in the latest edition of the NCTM newsletter Summing Up:as Reasoning and Sense Making—Expanding Our NCTM Initiative. For example
Continued emphasis must be placed on the development of processes and principles in the solution of concrete problems, rather than on the acquisition of mere facility or skill in manipulation. The excessive emphasis now commonly placed on manipulation is one of the many obstacles to intelligent progress.
—MAA, Reorganization of Mathematics in Secondary Education, 1923
Students should be encouraged to question, experiment, estimate, explore, and suggest explanations. Problem solving, which is essentially a creative activity, cannot be built exclusively on routines, recipes, and formulas.
—An Agenda for Action, NCTM, 1980, p. 4
Why was I not learning "the development of processes and principles" back in the 50's? Why are math teachers still teaching "routines, recipes and formulas"?

The NCTM is trying once again to get teachers to help students learn to reason with math so that it makes sense, with conferences like the one I attended and several series of books to encourage teachers to go beyond their textbooks. That this is important is obvious when you inspect the standard mass-produced textbooks, which thrive on steps, "recipes and formulas," with a picture added every once in a while to try to have it make sense. For example, Glencoe Mathematics, Algebra I (which I just happen to have on hand) introduces Polynomials this way:
Why It's Important
Operations with polynomials...form the foundation for solving equations that involve polynomials[!] In addition, polynomials are used to model many real-word situations. In Lesson 8-6 you will learn how to find the distance that runners on a curved track should be staggered. (This is accompanied by a picture of a track race.)
Fortunately, 45 states and the DC have adopted the Common CoreState Standards. As you can see, most of the Standards for Mathematical Practice in the CCSS explicitly refer to reasoning and sense-making as part of mathematics instruction:
  1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
  3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
  4. Model with mathematics.
  5. Use appropriate tools strategically.
  6. Attend to precision.
  7. Look for and make use of structure.
  8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.
We can look forward hopefully to future textbooks that take these to heart, and help teachers facilitate students' reasoning, rather than require that students memorize steps and procedures that won't even help them pass the current state tests! In the meantime, I hope that math teachers use the many resources provided by the NCTM, such as these in the Illuminations site and the Focus in High School Mathematics: Reasoning and Sense Making books.

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