Not Adding Up

An article in this morning’s Star Telegram floored me with the fundamental shortcomings of some elementary teachers. 

Melissa Eastman really got fractions for the first time this summer—eight years after she began teaching kindergarten.

She knew that one-half is greater than one-fourth, and that one-fourth is greater than one-eighth. But why was less clear. It didn’t seem logical that fractions got smaller as the numbers got larger.

During a math workshop for Mansfield school district teachers, it finally clicked. The teachers cut paper into smaller and smaller pieces to show how fractions make up the whole.

“I remember my dad sitting down with me and trying to make it make sense, but it didn’t,” said Eastman, who teaches at Anderson Elementary School. “I needed it explained to me in a different way.”

Experts say it’s common for elementary school teachers like Eastman to struggle in math.

Trained as generalists, elementary education majors typically take one or two core math classes in college and one on how to teach math. That’s in addition to classes that prepare them to teach reading, social studies, science and even art in some cases. The weakness in math has become more acute in recent years as the state and federal governments have looked harder at standardized-test scores.

Maybe I’m a freak or something, but I instinctively understood fractions when I was about five.  I was learning to read and amused myself in the car by reading road signs.  You frequently encounter fractions on road signs and after listening to how my father read them and putting the words together with the numbers I understood what they meant*.

Given what passes for teaching these days, though, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that many teachers don’t “get” math.  When we see schools trying desperately to avoid right/wrong or pass/fail grading so as to spare the precious feelings of the kids, not liking or avoiding math makes sense.  If you get your feelings hurt by being wrong, you’re going to absolutely HATE math.  You either have the right answer or you don’t.  Math cares not for your feelings.

Anyhow, I was greatly amused by this part of the article:

For the past four years, TCU has required education majors to take two in-depth classes on teaching math rather than one. Next year, all TCU education majors will also be required to take calculus.

I’m sure it’ll be a dumbed-down introductory calculus class, but it’s still going to be a bloodbath.  My first reaction was that I’d pay to watch the class, just for the amusement value.  [Perhaps this isn’t the time to mention that my second major after Computer Science was Math?  I kind of thought Calculus was fun, at least the first three semesters.  The fourth was a bit of a bother, but that was due more to the 8:00am class time than to the subject matter.] 

Interestingly, the article goes on to point out that having people proficient in math teaching the students actually makes a difference.  I know that for most people this is one of those “Duh!” revelations, but I suppose the educational establishment has to rediscover these things on its own.  They’ve spent so much time focused on educational methods and study that they forgot about the fundamentals. 

The Birdville school district is experimenting with math specialists this year at 10 elementary campuses. The specialists divide their time among schools and focus on specific problem areas with small groups of students and teachers.

Birdville’s specialists must have at least four years’ teaching experience and extensive math backgrounds, said Caren Sorrells, math consultant for the district. Some are former high school math teachers; one is a retired math coordinator from the district. They excel in interactive, research-based exercises, she said.

“I can’t believe the difference we saw even in just two weeks,” she said, noting that some students who struggled before working with specialists were starting to pass, and even excel on, math tests and quizzes

Not only do people who understand (and even like) the subject matter make a difference in the amount of knowledge transfer, I think their attitude comes through to the students.  If someone is uptight, nervous, or insecure about the subject matter it’s harder to teach.  You have to know the subject fairly well to teach it.  In fact, teaching something (if you do it right) is a good way to make sure you understand it.

* The only trouble I had with fractions in school had more to do with a hostile learning environment than with fractions themselves.  In fourth grade I was sent to “remedial” math because I was unable to complete some exercises at the board adding fractions.  They tested me there and sent me back.  The real problem was our evil teacher who stood by the board with a paddle and whacked you if you got something wrong.  That’s a lot of pressure to put on 9 and 10 year-olds.  Perhaps our teacher was overcompensating for her deficiencies in math.

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