This post has been rattling around in my head for months. Little bits of it have come out in various meetings, presentations, conversations and posts. Today is the day I try to string it all together.
I have found myself in many discussions lately on the topic of math. Student math “achievement” to be exact. When people are put on high alert to fix something, they begin to scramble, they feel an urgency and snap decisions get made. But I caution us to take a breath - take a moment to really examine, understand, grapple with and plan forward. It is difficult to make important decisions from inside the pressure cooker.
One switch for me, is that I would rather focus on student learning, rather than student achievement. If we look at the long view, is it achievement or learning that we want our students to walk away with? I hope it is the latter.
We all come at a problem from a different point of view and background. This is important. We need to be able to look at something from a circle of viewpoints to make the most informed decision. Most imortantly- we need the voices of the end users.
Here is where I come from- if we ONLY look at data, we are reducing our children to a number. Our kids are not a number, they are not a letter and they are not something to be "fixed". Don't get me wrong, data is a very important piece to this puzzle, but it can not be the only piece. What I try to bring to the table is the empathy piece. When I look at tackling a problem like student learning, I take a very human based approach- but I wasn't always this way.
About 10 years ago, I remember going to my principal to ask him why we didn’t have a particular web based math program for our struggling students. His response “Cori, a computer or a program isn’t going to help kids- only a teacher can.” This left me extremely frustrated! I knew other districts that used it and their students didn’t struggle like ours. The next year, I went to him again with the exact same question, where as, he gave me the exact same answer. I believe this may have happened three or four times before I just gave up. I was forced to figure out HOW to help MY students, thank goodness! I didn't know better, until I did. Hindsight is 20/20.
Well, guess what I now say like a broken record? When someone asks “Is there a program we can buy for the struggling students?” My response is “A program isn’t going to help those kids, only a teacher can.” Ha! #knowbetterdobetter at its finest. But I can't and don't stop there...
We are in the human business...the kid business. No one knows what makes our students tick, in terms of learning, better than us. Right? A computer, a teacher’s edition, a box of curriculum nor a packet of worksheets - knows our kids. If we want to grow our students we must know our students. Armed with that information, we need to have multiple strategies, skills and tools to meet them - because each one is so unique.
I was very blessed in the fact that when my principal wanted to change student learning, he knew we had to change our teaching. Beyond that, he provided us with training, resources and support to do different- and so we did. And the results were astounding!
So my response to the question- "How can we increase student math achievement?" is this..."If we want to change how students learn math, we have to change the way the math is taught. Not just taught, but they need a different experience.
Well, what might that look like? Rather than us force feeding them algorithms and steps that they nor us understand, let's provide them with opportunities to wrestle with math. Let’s provide rich tasks where there is sense making for the students. Let's give them a chance to play with and manipulate numbers rather than “beat the clock” on a timed test. Let us create a safe space for students to share different ways to solve a problem and a place where process over product is honored.
"We need to become comfy with the uncomfy and to step back a bit."
Allow for productive struggle yet be ready to guide and support students in mathematical discourse.
All of these ideas are the complete opposite of how I learned math- but guess what? I don’t believe I learned- I had no understanding- I just performed steps, like a robot, to get my good grades. Our kids deserve better.
So now what?
In order to teach math differently, we need to do what my principal did. We need to train our teachers in different. We need to flip some switches, change some mindsets AND provide them with activities, resources and ongoing supports in changing the classroom experience for students. Rather than putting kids on the computer or pulling them out for small group work on more of the same, let's put them at the center and craft lessons to engage, empower and enhance their learning experience.
I am only able to do better now, because I know better now. I can only imagine what kind of teacher I would have been, had I not been shown another way. If the only training our teachers receive in math is how to use the textbook, we are shortchanging not only our teachers, but our students. So, how can we fix student's achievement in math? We help teachers to understand and provide them with the supports to teach math differently. When they know better, they will do better.
What if we put money into professional development in this area rather than for some program that will just be a band-aid. Let’s show teachers the power of doing it different. Let’s give them what they need to then do it. And not a “one and done”...but ongoing support, job embedded support: coaching, co-teaching, observing and reflecting.
These all seem to be doable and easily scalable ideas- so why isn't it happening? I am not a decision maker and my voice is pretty small, BUT changing math experiences for kids and teachers IS a hill that I will die on.
I may not know or understand all of the politics, red tape or roadblocks that are holding this back- but one thing I do understand is the definition of insanity...
Mother, Teacher, Presenter, GCE Level 1 & 2, Encourager of others.
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