Seth Godin wrote a blog post yesterday which has been making the rounds in education circles. It’s called “Good at math”, and in it Seth makes a very good point in the first paragraph:
It’s tempting to fall into the trap of believing that being good at math is a genetic predisposition, as it lets us off the hook. The truth is, with few rare exceptions, all of us are capable of being good at math.
He’s right, without question. Most people are capable of becoming “good at math” the way most people are capable of becoming “good at reading” or almost anything else.
The problem with math education, he argues, is that there has been a focus on memorizing formulae in math classes instead of on the important stuff (I’m assuming he means modelling, problem solving, critical thinking, etc.). In particular, he says standardized tests are useless.
Before you continue, please understand that I agree with Seth. I agree that math education has been unbalanced in favour of rote learning and memorization, sometimes to the exclusion of problem solving and critical thinking, and is divorced from real-world, relevant application.
But one sentence in his post is really galling to me. One point he makes, almost casually, that has prompted this post.
It’s because you haven’t had a math teacher who cared enough to teach you math.
Again, I agree that the focus has been wrong, and that math education has been largely ineffective. But that’s not for lack of caring on the part of teachers.
Teachers are among the most caring people on the planet. We work like dogs, struggling beside our students, coaching, cajoling, encouraging, pleading. We can’t sleep for thinking about how to improve for the next day. Teachers agonize over their students misunderstandings, apathy, home lives, social problems, mental state, self-esteem, literacy, and all other aspects of their beings. We are charged with developing tomorrow’s citizens and we take it very seriously.
But it’s true that not all teachers are exemplary. Not every class is equally “engaging”. Teachers don’t all have the same arsenal of strategies at their disposal. We disagree about assessment, behaviour management, instructional paradigms, big ideas, learning goals,… pretty much everything, actually. There is little consensus among teachers.
Except for one thing: we care. We want the best for our students. We want to be better at our work.
So why has ineffective math education persisted for so long?
- there is a cycle of successful math students becoming math teachers (this is true in every subject area, not just math)
- it’s hard to employ new strategies
- it’s hard to find mentors who have effective practices and can coach
- there are approximately a bazillion other demands which take away from instructional practice, including other system- and school-level priorities
That’s a lot of reasons/excuses, but there are solutions.
Teachers must become aware that there are ways to improve their instructional practice. Some folks believe that the hard work is figuring out how to ensure compliance from students. “If only they would [insert good learning behaviour] then they would be successful” is a common statement. Developing this awareness requires exposure to better methods, whether through direct observation or other sharing.
Teachers need time and “permission” to try strategies which are new to them. Fitting everything into a math course is really challenging. Now ask a teacher to “take chances” with several lessons. It’s hard to convince people to try something new when you can’t promise it’ll work. In my experience, the best way to make the case is to remind them that what they’re doing now is only working for their strongest students anyway. That time spent “experimenting” can be gained back in the form of increased student understanding and skill.
School leaders need to encourage and support teacher learning in dramatic and meaningful ways. Make co-planning a priority. Visit classrooms. Learn about effective math instruction so that you can have rich conversations with your math teachers. Finding the time to develop as a school leader is possibly the most difficult task I’ve mentioned.
Seth’s blog post seems to have been aimed at the general public, reminding us that numeracy is as crucial as literacy, and that we have been damaged by narrow, ineffective teaching practices. That is a great message, and one that I think most people are hearing in his words. His claim that it’s because teachers don’t care is ridiculous.