The “Math Wars” still rage on

What amazes me about working in schools is that when I walk into one I am immediately transported back to being a student.  The clothes may be different and the hairstyles may have changed, but in the over twenty-five years that has passed since I was a student in an elementary school the model for teaching math still looks very similar in a lot of classrooms.

The teacher stands at the board (maybe now it’s a smart board), models an algorithm and the students practice it at their desks.  Now I’m not saying that this happens in every school.  I’ve had the chance to visit classrooms that use very different approaches and I like to think that when I was a teacher, I pushed for an inquiry-based way of teaching as much as I was able to at the time.

But it’s perplexing to me that 25 years of research haven’t been able to change the traditional model in a lot of schools.  Imagine if the hospital I went to 25 years ago still used the same methods today.

However, after reading the recent op-ed piece in the New York Times that argues against math education reform, I see why it is so hard to enact change.   There are still many people who don’t buy into new methods of teaching math, hence the so called “math wars.”   The fact that this debate between traditional and reform methods of teaching still wages on is shocking to me because we know that our traditional ways of teaching are failing lots of students.

After reading the piece in the Times, you should check out Professor Keith Devlin’s thoughtful paragraph- by-paragraph critique of the article.   It makes a number of good points that I won’t rehash here.

The thing that bothered me most about the op-ed was that there was no connection to what we know about how students learn.  There is no attention given to what the research says about student learning.   There has been plenty of work (see the references at the end for some of it) that demonstrates that students learning math in reform-based classrooms outperform students in traditional classes and these students report stronger motivation and interest in math.  What’s more, the reform approach has been shown to be successful with students of diverse backgrounds.

It just doesn’t make sense to me to keep doing what we’ve been doing and expecting different results.

What do you think?

Want to know more? Check out some of the research below.

Boaler, J. (2002). Experiencing school mathematics: Traditional and reform approaches to teaching and their impact on student thinking. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Knapp, M. S., Adelman, N. E., Marder, C., McCollum, H., Needels, M. C., Padillia, C., Shields, P. M., Turnbull, B. J., & Zucker, A. A. (1995). Teaching for meaning in high poverty schools. New York: Teachers’ College Press.

Silver, E. A., & Stein, M. K. (1996). The QUASAR project: The revolution of the possible in mathematical instructional reform in urban middle schools. Urban Education, 30, 476–521.

Van Haneghan, J. P., Pruet, S. A., & Bamberger, H. J. (2004). Mathematics reform in a minority community: Student outcomes. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 9(2), 189–211.

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