Everyone’s Happy in Happy Land, Dept.

Another Happy Land story about how schools are seeing the light and not teaching math in the way it used to be taught.  It is a given in education and apparently also for reporters, not to ever challenge the premise that the way it was taught never worked.  This story is no different.

We start with the classic notion that math shouldn’t be rote memorization (as if that is what traditionally taught math is about) but about critical thinking.

At Fair Oaks Elementary in Brooklyn Park, teacher Michelle Kennedy pushes her math students to give her more than just the right answer.

Her tactic was on display during a recent lesson when she asked her class: What is three plus three?

“It’s a six!” a kindergartner blurted out.

“Why?” Kennedy asked, unsatisfied.

“I saw it in my head,” the timid student explained.

“How did you see it in your head?” Kennedy persisted.

“I see a three and a three,” the student answered.

Really, folks, kids really do get what addition and subtraction are about without having them explain it each and every time.  But memorization is a no-no unless students show that they “understand” what is going on.  And the pay off is evident; I see high school students counting on their fingers to get the answer to 7 + 8; they are definitely showing understanding of what addition is about by combining the numbers, rather than just pulling it from memory.

The new approach: less memorizing formulas and more focus on understanding math concepts and building up kids’ confidence to do math. School leaders say the changes are necessary to shift the emphasis from boosting test scores to better preparing students to excel in college and in the workforce.  “Our instruction needs to change to meet the needs of today’s workplace,” said Kim Pavlovich, director of secondary curriculum, instruction and assessment for the Anoka-Hennepin School District.

Most of the school districts mentioned in the article use some form of discovery-based programs, such as CPM. They also use other chestnuts such as Everyday Math, whose spiral approach–in which students partially learn a concept and then bounce to an unrelated topic the next day and eventually spiral back to the first concept which by now they have completely forgotten–has gone unquestioned by the powers that be.  The publisher simply tells the teachers to “Trust the spiral” and those words are repeated to parents.

There is one district using “Math in Focus” which is based on the programs used in Singapore. And though such series has been Americanized to include the aspects of discovery and explaining things that defy explanation, it is at least a step in a better direction.

But for the most part, people are happy in Happy Land with programs like CPM:

On a recent Thursday, eighth-graders at Roosevelt Middle School in Blaine tackled math problems together using the CPM program that focuses on teamwork. They sat in small circles in a classroom, decorated with motivational words such as “I’m going to train my brain to do math” and “Mistakes help me improve.” They measured the rebound ratio for a small ball in groups of four, carefully explaining their answers to each other. They demonstrated to the teacher who was walking around the classroom that they knew how to at least solve a decrease in a quantity using graphs and measuring sticks.

 Math teacher Carrie Paske peppered each group with such questions as “Tell me why you think that?” to gauge their critical thinking skills.

 In her class, students use objects like algebra tiles to help them visualize algebra. Homework also has become less of a burden because students take home no more than five problems.

Yep. Everybody’s happy all right!  They even have the Jo Boaler-inspired quotes to keep them going.  The question that’s never asked, however, is how many students who make it into AP calculus in high school and major in STEM fields have had help at home or from tutors or learning centers.  And how many students how have not had such help are still counting on their fingers and doing poorly in math in high school?



2 thoughts on “Everyone’s Happy in Happy Land, Dept.

  1. “State education officials say the new wave of math programs…”

    “New?” This has been going on for decades now. Where have they been? Also, what’s been going on for generations is the constant of traditional direct teacher instruction and a focus on content and skills via P-sets from high school math teachers. It’s up to parents now to help their kids survive this K-6 silliness (at home or with tutors) to get into (hopefully) a traditional pre-algebra class in 7th grade. If not, it’s all over for STEM. The big battleground is now middle school and whether they provide any appropriate curriculum path to geometry as a freshman in high school.

    Even the College Board’s planned “Pre-AP” math class in 9th grade stresses the need for mastery of content and skills. It’s “whatever” for K-6, but reality for everything after that. The College Board stresses the “social justice” of Pre-AP, but lets K-6 completely off the hook. Hiding the tracking at home and with tutors increases the academic gap and is anything but social justice.

    It’s really quite astounding.


  2. “I see a three and a three,” the student answered.”

    She just hasn’t learned to say that she sees three ducks over here and three ducks over there. They come together and then she sees six.

    Almost 20 years ago, my son had to explain in words why 2 + 2 = 4 for MathLand, a curriculum so bad that it was almost completely wiped off the face of the internet. It was replaced by Everyday Math, a curriculum that champions repeated partial learning. You have to build your own scaffold or else it becomes circling rather than spiraling. These ideas are not new.

    Our schools’ state test results improved with Everyday Math – slightly, from stinking bad to bad. Parents and tutors are the only way they fill their top level math track.


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