Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Finally, a Renewed Focus on Math

It's great to see an article like this highlighting the importance of math education, emphasizing the need to prepare students for challenging, 21st century jobs with a strong foundation in math skills. With a title of Technology helps ratchet up math instruction: Combined with real-world approaches, tech helps turn kids on to math, I would expect to learn of many new and unique ways that technology is being used in instruction. However, it concerns me to see so few math focused technology initiatives discussed. Regardless, the article is full of excellent quotes and provokes much thought.

A few highlights from the article:
  • "K-12 institutions are looking for ways to help students understand--and even appreciate--tough math concepts. And it's technology, not textbooks, many experts say, that will make much of this transformation possible--along with a shift in teaching strategies and an emphasis on professional development.

    "Used well, technology can open the door to mathematics for more students than it ever has in the past," said Cathy Seeley, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM)."

I couldn't agree more that technology needs to be used to reach and teach students. And, that the only want to make this transition is to prepare teachers with effective professional development that allows them to experience this new way of learning first hand, while learning how to create lessons using these technologies. My concern is that I have not seen a lot of really great technologies specifically focusing on math. I've seen/used a few great software programs---but teachers are limited in how they use these because they require a computer lab. Realistically, what technology can we put in every math classroom that is going to be used to teach the majority of math concepts?

The article highlights two: the show NUMB3RS and the awesome educational materials created that support teaching math concepts and Carnegie Learning's math related technology programs. While I'd love to see more technologies highlighted, these are a start.
  • (Relating to NUMB3RS)
    "The idea, according to TI's Linda Beheler, is to take what students often see as abstract mathematical concepts and make them more relevant to their daily lives. The television show, she said, serves as an example of how math is used every day to solve real-world problems."
This is exactly what we need more of: tools teachers can use to make the abstract concepts tangible for students.
  • "Looking to the future, experts agree a majority of the jobs that will be in high demand are likely to have a strong technical focus. From computer engineering, to science, to design, Seeley said, math plays an increasingly central role in all facets of the modern workforce. But while educators in foreign nations have been aggressively pursing curricula with a focus on higher-level, 21st-century-type math skills such as calculus and engineering, U.S. institutions, by and large, have been slow to adapt, she said."

I'm not sure that there was ever a time when math wasn't important or a foundation for good careers..... but it is definitely hugely important now. Excellent time to plug the book The World is Flat. Why is it that the US has been "slow to adapt"???
  • "Seeley expanded on that point, saying that if America is going to remain a leader in the global economy, it's imperative that educators find effective ways to reach even the most reluctant students. And more and more, this involves the use of technology tools."

These are the kids I worry about most: the reluctant learners. Math is not beyond their reason. However, we must cater our instruction to their learning styles and needs. Math needs to be real and applied to their lives, it can't be boring at all, it has to be living and breathing. Students need to be challenged with real-world problems. Students need to be taught to question and wonder. Most importantly, they must be willing to take a risk, then if it didn't work, try something else. Teaching students these 'soft skills' comes from the classroom environment, not textbooks or technology.

  • "Teachers are going to need to change the way that they teach...to use technology well," she said. "We need to use the tools that will allow us to teach better, smarter."

Enough said! ..... but this requires a lot of training and very effective training at that.
  • (Relating to Carnegie Technology software) "Born in 1992 out of a research lab at Carnegie Mellon University, the technology-centered educational services provider operates under the philosophy that students learn best not simply by memorizing methods of operation, but by understanding the process through which answers to mathematical problems are achieved."
Excellent philosophy. However, memorizing basic facts and rules in math still has a place. The most frustrating experience for me is to see a student on a roll with a problem who gets stuck when he/she doesn't know basic math facts and then forgets what he/she was doing to solve the complex problem after finally getting the basic problem solved. Students must be held accountable for memorizing their basic math facts in the early grades so they can rely on them as the construct a thorough understanding of mathematical processes.

  • "The biggest challenge in mathematics is getting to the deeper understanding of how and why do I want to solve a particular problem," Ritter said. "Why is a particular operation the right thing to do?"
Again, couldn't agree more. I think this comes from effective questioning strategies in the classroom. Again something that is not taught to pre-service teachers--- in the context of math instruction. Math classrooms are often very focused on answers. Kids are happy to just get an answer.... they don't want to take the time to think too much about it. We have to slow them down, make reasoning part of the think-alouds that kids observe teachers doing when the solve problems.
  • "For teachers, he said, the key is to identify the difficulties faced by each individual student--and then teach to those weaknesses. And that's where technology can help, he said--by differentiating instruction."
BINGO! I've seen a product that helps do this for science. I worked with one for math, but it was dependent on every student having access to a computer. Unfortunately, our schools are not at this point yet. At least we are thinking about the right ways to use technology effectively for math instruction...we still have a long way to go though.

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