“I suck at math!”
“I’m afraid of math.”
“I can’t teach in the general classroom because of math.”
“No, music and math don’t exactly correlate for me, thanks.”
All of these phrases have come out of my mouth repeatedly in the last 36 years. I am suffer from severe mathophobia. I have struggled with every math class I have taken from first grade addition to senior year, “oh crap, I have to pass this to graduate high school”, Algebra II. I have received exactly one A in math, in my General Ed Math class in college. For the most part, with the help of a tutor, it has been scrape of my teeth passing.
So when the NY Times Magazine Article, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math“, came out two weekends ago, I clipped it to evernote and put it away. But as several other articles including, “5 Ways to Help Your Kid Not Stink at Math” and “Americans are Bad at Math, But It’s Not Too Late to Fix” came out this week, I decided to dig a little deeper.
Quick summary. The original article draws comparisons between the intent of American math reforms as seen by a Japanese educator in the 1980’s. Upon his arrival to the US, he found that all of his hopes (and reforms he’d put into place in Japan) were dashed by a didactic American system of learning math. Specifically, an emphasis on answers, products rather than process. There are many causes for lack of implementation within any curricular reform, in the case math, but specifically, the article draws attention to the lack of teacher training when reforms create a dramatic shift. It points to the current shift to the Common Core Math Standards and their emphasis on process and thinking skill over rote computational skill. Lessons that take numeracy out of context and emphasize rote memorization have led to an American population with math-phobia and worse, math innumeracy.
I have watched many a teacher and parent, included my beloved sister, balk at the implementation of the CCSS in Math. I have read a million articles pro and con. I have seen publishing companies take the CCSS and reduce it down to a series of workbooks and apps to make the standards fit within the traditional pedagogy of worksheet, drill-practice mania. I’ve come across lots of booklets and tools wrapped up in little bows with cutesy graphics to give teachers tools to implement curricular reform into their classrooms. But tools and training are not the same. Additionally, wrapping up a new way of thinking about math must be accompanied with a new way of thinking about teaching and learning.
In order to make a turn around on the nation-wide epidemic of mathphobia and innumeracy, we must turn the tide of what it means to be a teacher. We must look at the way teachers are prepared both in undergraduate and graduate education and the way we provide and undertake professional development within our schools and districts. Implementing curricular reform is difficult and it takes vast hours of quality professional development to provide both a philosophical base and a pedagogical base for change. We need to take all that we know about best practices in teaching to teach our teachers first! A teacher who understands how to teach in a way so students can learn will be a much stronger classroom leader than a teacher who teaches only the way they were taught.
My argument is not with educational reforms or the common core (though I will not touch the topic of standardized assessment at this juncture.). Rather, my argument is with our current practices of teacher preparation, continuing education, and professionalism. Teachers need to be given time to learn and grow to implement new practices. Teachers need to maintain and active growth mindset to believe that they can and should learn and grow. Finally, communities need to embrace the role of teacher as a professional title and expect this form of professional growth from their teachers while simultaneously respecting their expertise in teaching and learning.
As with all edu-change, the pace feels like running in molasses. In the meantime, I’m working on my mathophobia by opening my mind to thinking about math in new, practical ways. To look at how math is used regularly in my own life and recognizing when I need a brush up on skills beyond calculating tip and sale price. And to recognize that it is never too late to learn.