This blog post will be in three parts, as a good Ontario math lesson ought to be:
- Minds On: Bad test scores.
- Working On It: Why they are so bad.
- Reflect and Connect: What we should do. The answer is obvious: work on Math. But there is a hidden surprise outcome if we shift our focus to numeracy. Plus, as usual, I think some hacking is involved.
Minds On: Are we doing better or worse in math?
Check out the graph consider the overall trend.
Before moving on, you may also enjoy listening to the interview here.
Working on It: Interview with Dr. Kotsopoulos
Dr. Donna Kotsopoulos was interviewed by Craig Norris, host of the Kitchener-Waterloo The Morning Edition this past Thursday morning. The discussion was about the drop in students’ math performance on EQAO. The Ontario provincial test scores were released last week and for over 5 years running (or tripping as the case may be), Ontario students are not meeting the provincial standards in Mathematics. Highlights of the Provincial results show improvement in reading and writing, but mathematics continues to decline.
Dr. Kotsopoulos, a professor of mathematics education at Wilfrid Laurier University, identifies some reasons for this decline. She says the disappointing results are really no surprise.
Let’s do the math:
A teacher graduating from a bachelor of education (B.Ed.) program with no post-secondary math training (0 hours) and only 36 hours of mathematics education instruction in the B.Ed. program. Let x represent a new teacher’s readiness for teaching math in number of hours of training received throughout post-secondary education.
It is safe to assume that this is the equation for many practicing teachers. Most teachers in elementary schools have fewer than 36 hours of post-secondary mathematics education. Most teachers have limited formal training in mathematics and mathematics education. Dr. Kotsopoulos says most teachers are fearful of mathematics and have limited understanding of both the concepts and how kids come to understand those concepts. The remedy for this situation may be achieved now that Ontario is moving towards a two year education program. Dr. Kotsopoulos and her colleagues are calling for an increase to mathematics training that focuses on understanding math concepts, child development and pedagogy. Clearly, a large part of the problem is with teacher education. Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids In The World: And How They Got That Way, also points to teacher training being the biggest factor. Dr. Kotsopoulos referred to this book and her own research to conclude that the teacher is, without question, the biggest factor in student achievement. If the teacher struggles with basic math and has limited understanding of how to bring those ideas into the classroom, the outcome will be a disaster. We are seeing that outcome in the test scores.
What about professional development? Dr. Kotsopoulos says this is not helping the situation (and the results are clear on that as well). She suggests that professional development has largely been focused on literacy and thus we see improvement in reading and writing. However, she remains sceptical that professional development, in its current form, will be much help. The key is for teachers and professional development to focus on increasing conceptual and procedural understanding. In simple terms, teachers and students need to understand both why something works (conceptual) and how to do it (procedural).
Dr. Kotsopoulos notes that most teachers have an ABM attitude: Anything But Math. Indeed, we sometimes speak of integrating math with other subjects which I think is often a cover for teaching art or language instead of (not in addition to) the math content. “Teachers would rather teach almost anything but math” says Dr. Kotsopoulos. And clearly, boards of education and the ministry of education feel the same way about teaching teachers about math. Literacy keeps winning for PD dollars and time and so it’s no surprise that math slips behind year after year.
Reflect and Connect: What does it mean, what should we do.
Two more basic equations about improving achievement:
If you focus on literacy, you will improve literacy outcomes.
If you focus on numeracy, you will improve numeracy outcomes. You will *also* improve literacy outcomes.
Dr. Kotsopoulos’ research shows that a focus on numeracy increases numeracy and literacy skills. Her research demonstrates that the opposite is not the case. Working on literacy does not improve numeracy.
What about teachers that are past the teacher training point in their careers? What do we do? We can look to Jo Boaler, another fine example of mathematics education researcher. She offers a course for teachers called How to Teach Math.
I also think we need to hack math class. We need to bring our attention to the numbers and operations and get inside. We need to work to understand the mathematics and the students understanding of the mathematics. I think we should do less marking of worksheets and more attentive assessment of students mathematical thinking about problem solving. Don’t kill your entire night marking! We teachers could focus instead on one or two questions that will reveal something about how kids really think. We could focus on questions that will reveal and grow our own thinking too.
What teachers can do:
Take inspiration from these 2 Math Hackers:
Kyle Pearce @mathletePearce. He has created a platform for math blogging. He integrates technology to up-level understanding of procedural and conceptual math with iPad. He takes inspiration from Dan Meyer and uses a 3 Act Math lesson.
Check out Raymond Johnson’s list of MathEd teachers for more to follow on Twitter and get inspired. Do the math.