Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 25 2012

dy/Dan asks the question I’m too afraid to mention to my advisers

Who is getting attention in math education right now? Khan Academy. Mathalicious. Dy/Dan. Flipped Classrooms.

There are some reasons that each of these solutions to some of the issues math education faces are good things.
1. Khan-he has a BS in math from MIT so he understands math better than most high school teachers.
2. Mathalicious-the lessons are beautiful visually, have interesting quantitative problems, and are time-saving.
3. dy/Dan -He has a knack for design and storytelling and now is taking the time to dig into the research-I expect big things from him.
4. Flipped Classrooms-there is the potential that people who truly understand the Common Core could teach carefully conceived videos to kids everywhere and the teachers might learn too.

However, there are some people who have even better understandings of what is going on in math education that I wish got more airtime. Math education researchers. There are some absolutely brilliant insights into how kids learn mathematics that immediately and quickly show us how flawed some of our instructional practices are. This article about how Benny passed lots of math tests by learning random, non mathematical rules that worked in most situations really drives the point home to me. I wonder about the kids earning badges for completing math tests on Khan’s site who are doing the same thing. Khan’s got 10 year old posting about solving inverse trig problems-I seriously doubt that they understand what they are doing because there are so many concepts they have yet to develop needed to support understanding of those issues.

Yet, to people who haven’t studied the situation carefully, it just seems awesome that a 10 year old is excited about “math.” If they read the comments of kids who watch videos and still can’t apply what they learned to solve basically identical problems they post below they might be a little more worried.

So what is the questions I’m afraid to ask? Will I really be making the biggest difference if I become a professor and write papers that few people, even other researchers, take the time to read?” dy/Dan just asked his adviser that question on a panel discussion. I know they are spending tons of time preparing me to do research- and I can’t believe how much they have taught me and I promise to use it in my job(which will not be going to a classroom and only affecting a few kids in a flawed system). But maybe Dan knows what he is talking about when he thinks about trying to change the system outside of academia. I honestly think having the job of translating math education research for others would be amazing. I would love to have a Khan academy with videos actually based on research on student thinking. Research and careful work with students has fundamentally changed the way I see the issues-I want other to have such a powerful experience. I was so stuck in a culture where I literally had never experienced a good math classroom. We need videos, blogs, curriculum, to scale and spread these ideas. People are not going to nerd out like me and unpack dense theoretical work on student thinking.

Marilyn asked us this weekend how we were going to spread our knowledge. We’d just been at a conference and see that even researchers were not always focused on student thinking and missing the point of some prominent theories in math education. I saw how being a researcher and designing tools for other researchers could really help the whole field of research move forward. I see why Pat is working on an assessment of teacher’s meanings for secondary mathematical topics that he hopes other researchers will adopt. Just like math teacher who teach poorly to procedural tests, I saw researchers who were not teaching math teachers skills likely to improve student achievement to pass tests showing their professional development worked.

So perhaps Pat’s assessment instruments he creates will really push the entire field forward and that will mean more than all of the airplay Khan and Mathalicious get despite their lack of careful research-based support.

Fellow Bloggers-what are you going to do to make the most impact on the educational issues you care most about?

6 Responses

  1. This is a huge issue. There are people who do both well, and that is probably the best option. Although my other thought is that we are a math ed community, and, though these roles are valued differently, there may just be a need for people who take the different roles. People like your advisors need people who will popularize their work and put it on the web in a googleable format.

    • Ms. Math

      I totally agree-I mentioned that maybe they should make videos and they laughed about hiring someone. This was before I saw Dan’s post about how his advisers needed to higher someone as well!

  2. Jen Burton

    Wow! This kind of dialogue around math is exactly what I’ve been looking for. In our district we are just beginning to unpack the CCSS for math and are looking at a math adoption for next year. Just trying to wrap my head around it all!

    I totally agree with your thoughts on assessment. It seems to me if we are focusing on fewer standard and going deeper we will really need to know if students have mastered a math skill to a deeper level, in ALL modes, before moving students on to another concept. It could be very tempting to look at these skills, and with parent pressure, to think this is easy – I’ve taught them and assume they “know” it.

    Also, I think the only way to meet all students needs is to think of it like math workshop. Curious your thoughts…?

  3. Ms. Math

    Thanks so much Jen :) I believe that the people who wrote the CCSS had meanings in their words that are only going to be truly communicated to those who take unpacking it really seriously. I learned the best what math could be by watching someone amazing teach math. It wasn’t hearing about “inquiry” “connections” or “problem solving” in the abstract. It was going to his Calculus class every day for three semesters and meeting with him weekly to discuss our students thinking and how to move it forward.

    If anyone thinks that teaching something means kids know it have them read the Benny article-I know it’s not statistically generalizable, but I swear it seems to fit what I see all over the place.

    I’m not sure what a math workshop is-is that a different approach to organizing the classroom activities? Tell me a little more what you mean and I’ll do my best to think through it.
    What grade levels do you work at? I’m trying to keep abreast of resources, especially for 9-12 associated with the Common Core and happy to dialogue about what we find.

  4. Jay

    Ms. Math,

    There is a factual error. Khan doesn’t have a BA in math from Harvard. It’s really a BS in math from MIT.

  5. Ms. Math

    oops! I thought I saw that in a blog post or article on him. At least the factual error doesn’t make the point invalid.

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