I Stink, You Stink, We All Stink At Math

The 2014/15 school year is underway, and one of my goals is to write a post at least once a week. This week, we’re taking a look at an article from the New York Times that has caused a bit of a stir among math teachers: Why Do Americans Stink at Math? In it, author Elizabeth Green laments the failure of American teachers to embrace and properly implement needed reforms.

When I began teaching in the late ’80s, I remember the big splash NCTM made with their Principles To Actions. A Japanese teacher, Takeshi Matuyama, read about them and began applying them to his teaching with great success. However, when he visited the United States, he was surprised and disappointed to find that American teachers were still teaching math the same way it had been taught 100 years earlier.

Now there is a heated discussion over the Common Core math reforms. Current NCTM president Diane Briars has weighed in with a letter supporting Common Core, and tying it to the earlier Principles. Will teaching reform take hold this time, or will we continue to use 19th century techniques?

Green’s article explains the obstacles to implementing true reform, and she does an excellent job outlining why Japan’s math teachers are so effective. The main obstacle to reform in the United States is inertia – most teachers teach the way they were taught, so there is a built-in resistance to change. Another obstacle is inadequate training. A one-day workshop on the Common Core is not enough to equip teacher to radically change their methods. As Green writes, “In the hands of unprepared teachers, alternative algorithms are worse than just teaching them [students] standard algorithms.”

Why is Japanese math instruction so effective? The primary reason is Japanese math teachers are always reviewing their lessons, especially with peers and mentors. They invite other teachers to observe their classes, and then they go over ways they can improve. Their lessons are much more student-centered as well. Green compares American teaching style to Japanese as “I, We, You” vs. “You, Y’all, We”.

In the “I, We, You” model, the teacher works an example, then asks the students to work a few in class, and then assigns a bunch of homework problems based on those examples. In the “You, Y’all, We” model, the teacher posts a Problem of the Day that students wrestle with. Through their struggle to solve it – first individually, then in peer groups – the math concept is introduced in a way that encourages students to discover it on their own. “Almost half of Japanese students’ time was spent doing work that the researchers termed ‘invent/think'”.

There is a growing movement among teachers to embrace change. Dan Meyer is one of the most prominent voices encouraging teachers to move to a student-centered, active learning. Once you begin to connect with these innovative educators, you will get very excited about the future of math instruction in America.

If you’ve read this far, I encourage you to read the entire article. Even if you aren’t a math teacher, it has some valuable advice to teachers of any subject. For me, the take-away quote is this:

We will have to come to see math not as a list of rules to be memorized but as a way of looking at the world that really makes sense.


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