“Why Americans Stink at Math,” and implications for digital learning

Elizabeth Green, education reporter and CEO of Chalkbeat, has been getting quite a bit of media exposure regarding her forthcoming book, Building a Better Teacher. She has written articles, or been the subject of articles or interviews, in Education Next, USA Today, and Inside Higher Ed, among others. Her article in the New York Times Magazine, Why Do Americans Stink at Math?, has itself received some attention. It is worth reading for its insights into math instruction, as it explores the many ways in which educators have attempted to change the way that math is taught over several decades. The overarching finding is that researchers and educators have found several ways to improve math instruction, but none has been successfully implemented and scaled.

As I read the article, I was fascinated by the parallels with – and implications for – blended learning. There are enough ideas here that I am including them in this post and a second one that is forthcoming.

The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them.

This statement succinctly captures the exact situation we have seen in some of our own work and in research with schools. A key point is that if administrators or teachers don’t have a mechanism to hear students’ views, they likely don’t know that students are confused. Creating surveys, focus groups, or some other method of hearing students’ voices is imperative in blended learning implementations.

Green also speaks of Common Core standards as a way to reform math instruction:

“The reforms have arrived without any good system for helping teachers learn to teach them. Responding to a recent survey by Education Week, teachers said they had typically spent fewer than four days in Common Core training.”

The implicit conclusion here is that four days is not enough time for teachers to learn a new system. The question that all blended learning advocates should be asking is 'how much time is given to teachers to learn how to use digital content and tools to successfully personalize learning?' In our research, the answer is almost invariably—not enough.

Why is professional development so important, and why does it require so much time?

“…the most powerful influence on teachers is the one most beyond our control. The sociologist Dan Lortie calls the phenomenon the apprenticeship of observation. Teachers learn to teach primarily by recalling their memories of having been taught, an average of 13,000 hours of instruction over a typical childhood. The apprenticeship of observation exacerbates what the education scholar Suzanne Wilson calls education reform’s double bind. The very people who embody the problem — teachers — are also the ones charged with solving it.”

This situation leads to outcomes like the following:

“A team of researchers…traveled to California to see how the teachers were doing as they began to put the reforms into practice. But after studying three dozen classrooms over four years, they found the new teaching simply wasn’t happening. Some of the failure could be explained by active resistance. One teacher deliberately replaced a new textbook’s problem-solving pages with the old worksheets he was accustomed to using. Much more common, though, were teachers who wanted to change, and were willing to work hard to do it, but didn’t know how.”

The teachers “didn’t know how” because of a lack of professional development. Subsequently, this account gets even more interesting, and even more applicable to digital learning. Some of the stories that claim success in changing how math is taught have done no such thing:

“…one teacher…claimed to have incited a “revolution” in her classroom. But on closer inspection, her classroom had changed but not in the [intended] way…Instead of focusing on mathematical ideas, she inserted new activities into the traditional… framework. The supposedly cooperative learning groups she used to replace her rows of desks, for example, seemed in practice less a tool to encourage discussion than a means to dismiss the class for lunch…And how could she have known to do anything different? Her principal praised her efforts, holding them up as an example for others. Official math-reform training did not help, either. Sometimes trainers offered patently bad information — failing to clarify, for example, that even though teachers were to elicit wrong answers from students, they still needed, eventually, to get to correct ones. Textbooks, too, barely changed, despite publishers’ claims to the contrary.

The above paragraph could apply to countless tablet implementations in schools that don’t lead to real change in the instructional approach. When one new item is introduced into an existing system, the tendency is to adapt it to the system. Thus, tablets are used, but not in a way that changes the existing teaching model.

These issues are challenging, but solvable. The next blog post will explore implications of these findings for digital learning.

UncategorizedJohn Watson