Count the Tropes, Dept.

This article about a “math festival” held at an elementary school contains all the usual tropes about what math education is supposed to be about. I almost stopped reading here, but like being stuck in a traffic jam because of an accident, I found myself staring at the gory site at the side of the road.

A dozen parents gathered around veteran math educator Leanna Baker, moments before students show up for what is billed as a math “festival” for students at Allendale Elementary School in Oakland. “Do your best not to give them an answer,” Baker told the dozen parent volunteers about how best to help the transitional kindergarten to fifth grade students participating in math activities arranged for that day. “We want them to be problem solvers.”

The tropes of “to problem solve” and “problem solvers” have emerged as the latest shiny new thing over the past several decades.  As if math was never about teaching students how to solve problems. In the past, there was instruction given with worked examples on how to solve problems, but now it’s all about transfer of prior knowledge to new situations.  If a kid can’t do that, then it is generally assumed that (a) the teacher is teaching it wrong or (b) the parents aren’t doing enough at home. (Translation of latter statement: Parents aren’t teaching their kids what isn’t being taught at school).  Of course blaming it on the student is an option too but thanks to Jo Boaler and others of her ilk, saying a child is “not a math person” is a no-no.  (Not that that stops anyone; it’s just said in other ways.)

Then of course there’s the “I wish I learned it this way when I was in school” trope:

It began with a math night at single school, which later expanded to eight elementary schools. Zaragoza said she started math nights because “families didn’t understand what (teachers) were doing and that was causing a disconnect” between schools and families when it came to math instruction. “Once parents understand what we’re doing and what is happening you’ll hear them say ‘why didn’t someone teach me this way ?’ or ‘why didn’t I know this before?’”

Decades of experience with math provides adults a different view of the subject than kids have who are going through it for the first time.  The adults who benefitted from the methods now held in disdain are being subtly programmed to reject such methods as injurious and inadequate–a view reinforced by Alan Schoenfeld, who has been vocal for many years against the traditional mode of math education:

“We lose so many kids in elementary school because they get convinced math isn’t for them,” said UC Berkeley professor Alan Schoenfeld, a leading expert in early math education. “I’ve seen some really engaged kindergartners get to fourth grade and just get turned off from math because it’s boring or it’s taught in a way that makes them think it’s boring.”

And of course, no story like this would be complete without the “rich task” trope:

“One of the goals (of math nights) is to show early learning teachers and parents just how easy it is to provide really rich mathematical experiences,” she said.

For more about “rich tasks” see this. Then hire a tutor for your child.


7 thoughts on “Count the Tropes, Dept.

  1. “Once parents understand what we’re doing and what is happening you’ll hear them say ‘why didn’t someone teach me this way ?’ or ‘why didn’t I know this before?’”

    And the parents of their best students keep quiet (because they get trashed – been there) and do the opposite at home.

    “I’ve seen some really engaged kindergartners get to fourth grade and just get turned off from math because it’s boring or it’s taught in a way that makes them think it’s boring.”

    That HAD to be over 20 years ago because “traditional” math in K-6 has been gone that long. Our school switched to Everyday Math in 2003 and before that they used MathLand for years.

    “…to provide really rich mathematical experiences,”

    Does it work? Where are the results? How many more kids (with no skill help at home or with tutors) get a ‘B’ or higher in a proper Algebra I class in 8th grade?


  2. “…his school has chosen to call math nights “Common Core Night for families,”

    Does he tell parents that the highest expectation for CCSS at the end of high school is no remediation in a college algebra course? Does he tell them that CCSS now officially defines a NO-STEM zone that starts in Kindergarten and is virtually unfixable even with tutors if you wait until your child ends up on the slow math track in 7th grade? Yes, they love math, but what they love is NOT math that leads to a STEM degree or many other college programs. Good luck passing the college statistics course to even get a nursing degree at some colleges. I saw that happen first hand. This is not just a STEM issue. It’s a mathematical incompetence issue.


  3. “Sacramento City College’s Zaragoza wants to make sure kids don’t grow up “math phobic” as she did. “I just think that’s a horrible way for kids to feel,” she said.”

    Then how will they feel when they aren’t “math phobic”, but can’t pass college statistics – when they have to change their degree program and career path? Their hypothesis is that success in math is about “feelings”, not their bad curricula and low expectations for mastery of skills on a proper grade-level basis. They claim that they love a balance of skills and understanding, but offer no proper enforcement of skills. If skills don’t automatically follow from good “feelings”, then don’t look at them. Meanwhile, we parents of their best students do not trust feelings and force that assurance at home and with tutors.


  4. How do you tell educators that they have it completely wrong? When my son was in K-6, the only solution was to keep quiet and do the enforcement of skills at home. My son’s first grade teacher told my wife and I that our son had “a lot of superficial knowledge.” We learned quickly to keep quiet because the problem was systemic and unfixable. Then in high school, everything changed to reflect reality. Most teachers knew the difference between feelings and competence based on content and skills.


    • But now CPM has high school math, like algebra 1, 2 and geometry. CPM is an inquiry-based program that some school districts have adopted. So even in high school, teachers are held hostage to ineffective practices. And for those who do teach in a traditional manner, they still have residual feelings of guilt for not teaching in the student-centered manner as depicted in videos shown in ed school–usually the ones produced by the Annenberg Foundation, showing HS classes with 10 students in them.


  5. Many of my son’s high school math teachers came from industry and had no angst or worries about traditional teaching. Issues only happened in the regular college prep versions where teachers had (some) group problems and art projects. However, nobody ever thought that the honors/AP versions were somehow more rote with less understanding. That’s where all of the STEM students were located.

    This lack of questioning about traditional teaching in our high school might not be common around the country, but I don’t see anything else dominating high schools in our area for college bound and STEM students. There is one Harkness Table prep school in our area, but they set high standards (including AP Calculus) and that means that students have a lot of individual homework.

    I only see the overt educational silliness in K-6. Grades 7 and 8 seem to define an incredible change where educators claim that students have to take charge and become life-long learners. Students go from a natural learn-when-they-are-ready environment to a take charge environment that is driven by competition and the real world. For many, the non-linear transition does not happen, especially in math.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s