This 2014 story published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports the shocking news that teaching first-grade students math using the dreaded worksheets, and traditional modes of education was more effective than ” group work, peer tutoring or hands-on activities that use manipulations, calculators, movement and music.”

According to Maureen Downey in her article, “This is an important issue as I increasingly see schools – including those my children attend – tout group learning activities. In many classrooms now, you will see students working at tables together on math. A friend who teaches in a Title 1 school lamented that her students didn’t do as well in the math CRCT as the classroom next door where the teacher used worksheets all the time. My friend’s classroom was a beehive of fun activities around math, but the worksheet class continually outperformed hers. These new findings help us understand why that might have been.”

What I find interesting is the conclusion that the direct, traditional instruction benefits those students with math difficulties, implying that those students without math difficulties do just fine with student-centered approaches. The possibility that difficulties with math may be a result of the student-centered approaches is something that is not discussed even though the study by Paul Morgan and George Farkas of Pennsylvania State University indicates that “a higher percentage of [students with mathematics difficulties, or MD] in the first-grade classrooms were associated with greater use by teachers of manipulatives/calculators and movement/music to teach mathematics. Yet follow-up analysis for each of the MD and non-MD groups indicated that only teacher-directed instruction was significantly associated with the achievement of students with MD (covariate-adjusted effect sizes [ESs] = .05–.07).”

I recall in an article I wrote called “Being Outwitted by Stupidity” I suggested that the increase in students being diagnosed with learning difficulties in math raises the question of whether the shift in instructional emphasis over the past several decades has increased the number of low achieving children because of poor or ineffective instruction who would have swum with the rest of the pack when traditional math teaching prevailed. I stated “I believe that what is offered as treatment for learning disabilities in mathematics is what we could have done—and need to be doing—in the first place.”

This article garnered about 80 comments, many of them hostile, including my all time favorite which named me a “conservative simpleton fraud”.

I continue to maintain that many of the difficulties we see students having in math may be attributed to insufficient and ineffective instruction. To put it as simply as I can, they may not be learning math because they aren’t being taught math. But the Morgan/Farkas study is being interpreted in the usual manner: “Teacher-directed instruction is also linked to gains in children without a history of math trouble. But unlike their math-challenged counterparts, they can benefit from some types of student-centered instruction as well – such as working on problems with several solutions, peer tutoring, and activities involving real-life math.”

Not mentioned is whether and to what extent such students receive additional help in the form of parents at home, tutoring, or learning centers. We might have to wait a while for that kind of study to surface.