Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Math Literacy

An article in the Washington Post this morning got me thinking about how we teach reading and how we teach math. It seems to me that we've made gigantic strides in our teaching of language arts (reading, writing, word study) in recent years. There are phenomenal professional books out there, many of them written by classroom teachers, or individuals who only recently left the classroom. There are some good professional books about math, but they are fewer and often written by large groups of professors or others removed from elementary classrooms.

We've got a lot to learn about teaching math.

Virginia Commonwealth University math professor William E. Haver, who is involved in the partnership, said elementary teachers need to know far more than the standard curriculum. With a depth of knowledge, teachers can help children understand relationships between numbers and solve problems in different ways. Without it, teachers often rely on memorization and aren't well-equipped to help struggling students.

"Elementary math isn't elementary," Haver said. "There are a lot of deep ideas there. Usually, if a child doesn't get the right answer, there's a fair amount of good thinking along the way, but it got astray at some point. If you can pinpoint that problem, you're better off."

I think this is a bigger problem than just our schools. Our society has math phobia issues. It's acceptable to be bad at math and to hate math. Saying the same thing about reading is taboo. It seems unlikely that we'll manage major change in education without similar change in society.


Blink said...

Your blog title says it for us regarding K-6 teaching, but here is a professor reminding us that... "Elementary math isn't elementary," Haver said. "There are a lot of deep ideas there." No kidding! Your point, "It's acceptable to be bad at math..." is true, I think, especially for girls. Research shows girls turn off the math switch around fifth grade because it's not cool to be smart, particularly in math, and particularly in some social circles. Thinking about this... not sure I've heard many male friends say, "I was never good at math," but have heard lots of my female friends say it. There could be another cultural reason for this. Your post really has me thinking!

Squire McGuire said...

I am a male and I was great at math until we started in Algebra in 9th grade, teacher had no clue and I got frustrated, I should have asked for help but I was overwhelmed. I ended up taking Algebra 1 in summer school and got a 96???? When I went to community college many moons later I needed to take a non-credit algebra class since I scored low on the entrance exam (I was 25 and had been away from math for about 9 years) the instuctor asked who in the class went to my high school and when 9 of us raised our hands he said that thanks to my 9th grade algebra teacher his tutoring and community college teaching career was in the stratosphere! I distinctly remember smarter kids askig questions when she would write the answers from the teacher's manual on the board and her standard answer would be "it's in the book"! Talk about a bad teacher and a bad introduction into the world of x=y, I stil shudder when I think about it, luckily my wife is very good at algebra and will be able to help our children with homework...

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim said...

The importance our community puts on literacy is demonstrated by the fact that every school in the district has a full-time reading teacher.

If math is as important to the future of our students as the article implies, shouldn't we also have a full-time specialist in every elementary school who's job it is to improve math teaching?

Michaele Sommerville said...

Good post- and makes me glad I teach kindergarten, where math is still all very experiential, hands-on.

Julie Pippert said...

I think you make a great point.

I've always been a math challenged but I think it's because it has never been taught to me in a way that I learned.

It's not the subject, it's the approach.

Most of my math teachers were my WORST teachers, period.

One exception: high school geometry. That teacher got *my* number and taught me right to an A. Called me geometry gifted, which was nice. I'd always been labeled stupid.

I'm excited about all the new ways of thinking about math I've been running into for my kids (6 and 3) and all the new approaches.

I don't want them "stunted" the way I was so we really emphasize it.

But I do think you are so right.

Great post.

Using My Words

damned_cat said...

Society's general acceptance of math phobia is evident in philosophies behind programs like Everyday Math, which seem to "de-mathify" math to soften the blow and make it easier to swallow. I think a deep and solid foundation of number sense can be built effectively with Montessori methods - very tangible materials like beads, base ten blocks, ten-frames, etc. But budgets (time and financial) don't often allow for this type of teacher training, much less student instruction. It's too bad ...

As a teacher-in-training my graduate school was Montessori methods-focused, which opened my eyes to so many things about math that I myself missed out on as an elementary school student. I felt so prepared to teach, and then was angry when I stepped into the public school system and saw that I wouldn't be allowed to use the methods that instill those deep foundations of number sense. So it is skill and drill, memorization, and another generation of kids who hate and "don't get" math.

the Washington Post article - and so many teacher blogs :)- should be required reading for all curriculum directors.