Can’t fight the #EdTech juggernaut.

What is #EdTech?

I’ve asked this before. I went into a spiel about how technology isn’t easy to define asking, “do we sometimes mistakenly assume it has to be an object”? After pursuing learning related to EdTech in this past year, I think it is fair to view it simply that way. A modern definition of educational technology to me strictly addresses: the objects, apps, and tools created in order to aid in learning. EdTech is just learning, past and present.

BUT!

When one thinks of EdTech, one thinks of <insert device here>. SMART Boards, iPads, BYOD classrooms, take your pick. Mainstream EdTech is devoid of the history or philosophy, it is simply a “thing”.

And shout out to Holly, she nailed it with this definition:
“it is a set of tools that aim to enrich and enhance the teaching and learning experience.

To continue with completely overgeneralizing, education technologists (EdTech users) know the historical influence and implications of what goes into education technology anyway (the ideas and processes), so while an official designation of what EdTech is may contain the thoughts of its foundation, the majority view it simply. The critics and opposition to EdTech as a may point to the tech trade-off as a Faustian bargain, but that argument can be said of any step for progress/change and to me has all the symptoms of pessimism (the “p” word). “This new energy source will create new jobs”, “yes but it will ruin or make old jobs obsolete”, cut it out.
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via GIPHY

It’s awful to displace people who may have worked at something for a long time, yes, but it illustrates our need to be able to adapt. Potentially, some companies are imposing values and beliefs on our youth with what tech they create, but it some cases, believe it or not, these things are created with the genuine intent to make life better (some capitalize on this, unfortunately). Haters might come at me with: “these technologies aren’t distributed evenly though, this increases the wealth gap as the haves get the best gear”. True, it does, but it also helps teach digital literacy to those with minimal exposure to it at home, assuming your educational institution can facilitate it.

Resistance is futile.

But worth it.

From oral to written to computer to social media, learning and EdTech has taken on different shapes throughout history. Fact. However, doubt is an integral part to each innovations’ growth and consequently seeks to further learning. The game is constantly changing for humanity. It doesn’t make us all-powerful when we are the architects of these paradigm shifts, but agents of change. These agents may hold and manipulate power and the very flow of human socialization, but it is negligent to not acknowledge what works (and what doesn’t).

Why do I think about it this way? It stems back to worldviews and a growth mindset. Approaching problems, be it with self or with others with a solution in mind; positivity in making the most of what’s available is not only better for me, but better for my students. So I continue to embrace change in education as a whole, not simply limited to the scope of EdTech, whether or not all of its depth is actually taken into consideration by the masses.

By the way, how great are gifs? And how fitting is this to the theme of my ramblings today?
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via GIPHY

 

Agree? Is this all there is to EdTech and life?

Disagree? I’m too optimistic and need to be more realistic of the perils?

Comment.

– Logan Petlak

 


Technology is Interwoven

Just like educational technology is ever changing, I feel that my definition of “edtech” has transformed many times over recent years.  When I think back to my experiences with technology as a child, I have fond memories of duck hunt on the Nintendo, and not so fond memories of kicking “said Nintendo” in result of trying to co-exist with two older brothers.  No, in case you’re wondering…that didn’t end well.

Within school, my only memory of technology prior to high school is listening to books on cassette tape in Kindergarten.  Into highschool, like several eci833 classmates, I mastered the art of keyboarding with All the Right Type and typed out several English writing assignments.  The clearest memory of anything technology related within my own experience was that one feared and hated light switch within the computer lab that turned off ALL the computers with a flick of the switch.  Experiencing that dreaded feeling of losing all your work (that you were too foolish to save frequently in Word) from a classmate who left the lab and attempted to turn off the lights as he/she left….ugggh.  If that is the most pivotal memory I have with edtech…I think that’s saying something!

25873192710_80a0492542Photo Credit: jawsnap.photo via Compfight cc

My own experiences with edtech in school were very much that of a consumer of content.  If we used technology, it was to look up research and report it back to the class.  If we were creating anything, it was a mere Word Document.  Now as the roles have changed and I have my own classroom, I am beginning to define educational technology in a very different way.  I agree with Heidi in that education technology should enhance learning, but I think it should also be interwoven with learning.

28958730882_3b17b84343Photo Credit: jean_pichot1 via Compfight cc

I have many friends and colleagues ask my how I have time to incorporate technology into my teaching and I’ve come to learn that it shouldn’t be viewed as an additional item to fit in.  I don’t have “computer time” within my classroom but rather, it is integrated into everyday aspects of my day, guided numeracy and guided literacy especially.  Rather than having technology be an “add-on”, I am learning to replace ineffective teaching strategies and assessment methods, with more innovative and efficient methods which involve technology.  It is not “in addition to”, it is “instead of”.  So my first personal contemporary understanding of education technology is that technology allows us to be more innovative, more connected, and teach more meaningfully.  Molenda mentions within our first reading this week that humans have a “primordial drive to find ways of teaching in ways that are more efficient”.  Educational technology is part of the answer in being more efficient.     

My understanding of edtech is also shifting from the idea that “technology=tools” to a larger conceptual understanding of technology as processes, experiences, and creations, which are sometimes through the use of tools.  This year, I am working with two fantastic colleagues to engage our grade 2 and 3 students with S.T.E.M. experiences.  Our reasoning for incorporating these additional science, technology, engineering, and math opportunities to our students is to have them create, collaborate, and problem solve through a social learning experience.  I view educational technology in a similar way…it enables my students to create, to collaborate, to explore and potentially solve real world problems through learning from and with others.

Yes, we use Ipads and chromebooks within our classroom but it isn’t the WHAT, the devices that form my understanding of educational technology. It is the HOW and the WHY…

HOW we are using our devices?

…and what PURPOSE do they have in our learning?

I was reminded of the HOW and WHY from Postman this week…

“The best way to view technology is as a strange intruder, to remember that technology is not part of God’s plan but a product of human creativity and hubris, and that its capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does for us and to us.

So if I had to explain my personal contemporary understanding of educational technology, I suppose I would say…

Education technology is collaborative.

Education technology is creative.

Education technology leads us to a deeper understanding of our world.

Education technology is not just about tools, it is about processes which lead us to experiences.

Educational Technology in My Life

Last night we had our first online class for EC&I 833. The class had us looking back through the years at how education and technology have evolved. I couldn’t help but think back to my experiences with technology and education right from the first computer I had at home (an IBM) right through to my teaching experiences with technology. I decided to create a mini presentation/vlog to share some of my experiences. If you want to hear about my past experiences you can watch from the start until 6:40, after that I discuss how my past experiences have shaped my current philosophy on technology and education.

I took some time to look up some of the educational games I used in the past and it brought back some great memories. Number Munchers, Reader Rabbit and All The Right Type are the programs that stand out the most in my mind. I think we all remember the typing programs… fff jjj faff jjj ff jj fjf jfj …am I right?? As a side note, anyone who was also a big fan of Number Munchers should be happy to hear that they have an app! I was surprised to come across it but I’m not going to lie…I will be downloading it. Anyways…back to the matter at hand.

After thinking about my experiences I started to think about how they impacted my education and how technology continues to influence my teaching practice. Technology has evolved over a long period of time and we’ve seen many advancements from the printing press to the computer. I would like to argue that the computer has had the biggest impact on the way we do things, but I could also argue that newspapers, radio and tv have drastically changed the way we have progressed globally and within our society. It doesn’t matter what type of technology is being introduced there are going to be changes that come along with it. Neil Postman describes five ways things that we need to know about technological change and I believe they are all valid points. I think my favourite point he makes is that every change comes with a trade-off. Some might argue that texting is making our students bad writers while others will argue that it is helping our language evolve.  Either way you look at it, we are trading something off.

Neil also states that “technology is not additive: it’s ecological”. This implies that it changes the way we do things. It impacts everything we do and we need to adapt and change to work with technology. This idea really speaks to me when I think about technology and education. As I explain in my video, technology has the ability to drastically change the way we do education. It gives learners and opportunity to go beyond the classroom walls and make connections that may have never been possible before. I know we have a long way to go as not everyone is onboard with integrating technology and we don’t have the funds to get us to where we maybe should/could be. But we are working on it. It is something that will always evolve and seems to be evolving at a very fast pace. It is our job to do our best to keep up with the times so that students are prepared for the 21st century work force that is seeking critical thinkers, problem solvers and collaborators.

I’m not sure I’ve done the definition of educational technology but I hope you can make some connections to what I have said and that I’ve made you think about your own practices and views on educational technology.


Philosophy of the scientific method

A lot of students ask me (not actually): “Hey Mr. Petlak, why do you think the scientific method is so great?” and I say to them: “Because.” and they say: “Because, why?” and then I say: “Exactly.”

“Why?”

that-is-the-right-question

I, Robot by grogbor via imgur

The question is at the root of science and learning. Keep asking questions, and keep asking the right questions. Serendipitous discoveries don’t happen without the right question about an observation.

Why is the sky blue?

How does the moon affect tides?

The scientific method answered these questions. Through data and experimentation, individuals explained what it wasn’t, and accumulated data that explained what it was.

However…

My first three and a half years of teaching are in the books and I’ve been startled at how the scientific method is easily forgotten or left unappreciated. And some things may not be simplified/explained using this method – like teaching… yet. The scientific method may seem like another thing to memorize in class, but for myself it is a way of approaching life: Every problem or observation has an explanation or solution… or if the solution doesn’t solve it yet, we learn something that it doesn’t solve it. Is this a new philosophical idea? When did this way of thinking originate?

The Scientific Method as an Ongoing Process.svg
By ArchonMagnusOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42164616

 

First introduced by a man named Alhazen in the 10th-11th century, he stressed the importance of meaningful data collection. While individuals may have thought this way prior to this, he is credited with it. I personally don’t always place a strong emphasis on historical figures as I find that we tend to glorify and paint individuals with a perfect history. In this case, the fact that this way of thinking has been around so long is important to take note of. Why? This means of thinking transcends time and provides us with a common language and means to approaching problems/questions about our world. And it is without a need for faith or belief, because you can observe it work. It isn’t opinion, its free from bias.And it existed in times where faith and belief may have been mandatory.

People abuse what it tells us and asks for their own gain, unfortunately. So education is required on the nature of science – it is simply the pursuit of truth. Hard truths are inherent within the process. We learn the most from answering the hard questions and challenging the unanswerable questions… yet the opportunity for good and evil “for the sake of science” presents the duality of its nature.

people_like_what_science_gives_them

“People like…” via reading-skeptics.org

Science, at its roots, is laced with a natural idealism and altruistic intentions, yet the beauty of it is that it is devoid of both. You can love and hate what you learn, but science is free from love and hate. And that simple complexity is what makes it such an important part of pursuing life – humanity and organisms constantly address problems and come up with a means to fix and explain them… what we do with the solutions are up to us.

Problem?
Why is there is problem?
Possible explanation to fix the problem.
Try explanation.
Failure?
New explanation to fix the problem.

 

Always keep questioning and solving problems… so if you have any questions, comment below!

Logan Petlak


The Perfect Teacher

I’ve just graded the midterm for the first class I’ve taught as a university instructor. Unfortunately , a disconnect is developing, one that becomes more apparent everyday I teach and I’m stumped with how to clean up the pieces. I’m not a perfect teacher. I’m not a perfect educator, instructor, or lecturer. But, I’m more than eager to keep trying. I’m more than willing to attempt to create an exceptional learning environment for my university-level students. If that’s true, then what happened? On the first day of class, I told my students that I didn’t just want them to stay because the class was a requirement or a prerequisite. I wanted them to appreciate math in (m)any of the ways that I did. I wanted them to see its practicality and beauty. But, it seems that is not happening.

A failing average on a midterm, a drop-out rate of 33%, anxiety-ridden students- I’m missing the point. Yet, my supervisor is not surprised. Instead, he tells me that this pre-calculus class I’m teaching in university has the highest drop-out rate of any first-year mathematics course. That includes business/applied calculus, pure calculus, and linear algebra (read: new content). A 33% drop-out rate isn’t even at the average yet. I assume I’ll hit the coveted 40% by the end of the term. At first, I thought it was all my fault. I also thought that it being my fault is the worst possible scenario, but that’s not true. The worst possible scenario is that it isn’t my fault. I can fix myself. I can try harder, research longer, study further- be better. Attempt. Reflect. Repeat.

However, if the problem isn’t me, then it’s the class and the theoretical construct of this class. The scope, then, is much wider. It isn’t just 40% of my class that will leave this mathematics lecture hall more frustrated than when they got here. It’s 40% of every class. It’s 40% of all the students who have taken this class since it began, three years ago. So, what’s the next step forward?

I intend on carefully reviewing the material for the next half of the course. I want to continue to inspire them- at least try to. I’ll provide an extra credit assignment because I care less about grades and more about them understanding. I’ll do everything I can to help them succeed, with the recognition that they, too, need to work hard. I’ll work as hard and sometimes harder than them at creating an atmosphere that is conducive of learning. My biggest concern is that I don’t have enough time. I don’t have enough time to teach both thoroughly and quickly. I’ll continue to model the class how I’m expected to. After it’s all over though, I want to reexamine it again. I want to look back at these questions and find answers. I want to know if other instructors here have the same issues as I do. If they don’t, why? I want to know if other universities have the same troubling statistics. Is there a difference between students who attended schools in Canada and those who haven’t? Is there a difference in test scores since the WNCP took over secondary mathematics education in Canada? What are the trends? How do we begin to change it? A thousand tiny ripples.


A Thousand Tiny Ripples

“One of the features that made this lesson typical of teaching in the United States is just this: stating rules, rather than developing procedures, and thereby turning mathematics into a matter of following rules and practicing procedures.”

– James W. Stigler and James Hiebert (The Teaching Gap)

I can open any mathematics textbook and find the same thing: rules and procedures. The WNCP got a few things right. It was time to change for purely-procedural mathematics to something that had a better shot at igniting curiosity in children: discovery mathematics. Unfortunately, save a few individual teachers, no one knew how to begin integrating inquiry into the mathematics classroom. No one was taught how to teach for inquiry.

Today, the problem is not the same as it was ten or fifteen years ago. Today, there are a number of education programs across Canada that are devoting their time and energy to creating effective teaching programs that teach for the development of the child and growth of curiosity. Today, there are countless academics devoting their time, energy, and money to creating cost-effective, time-effective, and simply effective methods of teaching for discovery in the mathematics classroom. Today, the problem isn’t finding the practical, hands-on teaching methods to design and facilitate inquiry-based mathematics classrooms. Even mathematics textbooks, such as the Math Makes Sense textbooks by Pearson, include a number of different hands-on approaches that teachers can use to teach concepts in the classroom. In fact, Math Makes Sense is so popular, that the “new mathematics curriculum” (i.e. WNCP) is known by parents and other stakeholders as “Math Makes Sense math”.  So, if the issue isn’t in the resources, then where is it?

Today, the issue is getting pre-service and in-service teachers to “buy into” nontraditional approaches to teaching mathematics. Every teacher was a student (either traditionally or nontraditionally), and in Canada, the large majority of them attended public school with traditional mathematics teachers. What has become typical in the classroom has been typical for an incredibly long time and the teachers who continue to teach typically are the ones who were taught typically. Consider the habit of biting your nails. At some point, typically when a person is an adolescent, they become aware that they are biting their nails. Some stop and some don’t. Those who do often have a difficult time quitting. I know I did and I was fourteen when I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore, and I was much younger than that when I was told that I shouldn’t. Now, imagine if you bit your nails until you were twenty-five, unaware you were biting them and only then, did someone tell you that you shouldn’t. How much resistance would the person who just told you to stop get from you? Perhaps you’d go through denial, anger, frustration- eventually acceptance. Those feelings rang true for me as a pre-service teacher, trying to navigate my way through a Bachelor’s of Education. Those feelings also rang true for many of my future colleagues as well. Being told that your understanding of teaching and learning is faulted (broken, even) is a tough pill to swallow. In fact, it’s a whole bottle of pills because it starts with one situation (e.g. calculators in the classroom), where you are headstrong for or against something, and the world comes crashing down in one simple counterexample- a situation or scenario that was never part of your lived experience.

It’s not fair or even reasonable, however, to expect teachers to have enough experiences that cover the basis of teaching and learning. For the record, most mathematics teachers are teachers because they excelled in traditionally-taught mathematics. They didn’t need a calculator for their multiplication tables in ninth grade. Numbers were easy. Algebra was easy. Calculus was, often, easy. So, if we can’t go back in time and change the experiences pre-service teachers had as students, what is the solution?

In The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom, Stigler and Hiebert (2009) discuss the implications of their study completed in 1999 that detailed the drastic differences in American, Japanese, and German mathematics teaching. Their final conclusion was that American teaching needed a makeover, one that would require time, money, and support. But, they wouldn’t stop there. They would include several key changes that need to be made in the American education system in order to dramatically improve education in the United States:

  1. Build consensus for continuous improvement- This section highlights the importance of designating (a) person(s) for the job of continuing education for teachers. It is not only the responsibility of the teacher, but also of the school board and government. Furthermore, aiding all stakeholders in recognizing the importance of small, gradual shifts as opposed to dramatic ones is key to constructing a solid foundation of improvement. No as-seen-on-TV-products. No gimmicks. Currently in Western Canada,  stakeholders (in particular parents and politicians) have been attempting to uproot the WNCP on the notion that it has done nothing to help young students better understand math; on the contrary, it is furthering misunderstanding of mathematicsAlberta and British Columbia have seen the biggest backlash, but Saskatchewan and Manitoba are not far behind (check out WISE math, and initiative developed by professors for the University of Regina and Manitoba). Unfortunately, according to many extremely successful programs across the globe (e.g. Finland), inquiry-based mathematics may not be a fad, but will take time to grow with the right support and resources. In Canada, there seems to be no consensus for continuous improvement. Instead, mathematics education, like so many things, has taken the political approach: either discovery or traditional mathematics. The middle ground is compromise and no one wants to do that. Until the middle ground is not seen as a compromise, but rather the best solution, a consensus will never be found.
  2. Set clear learning goals for students and align assessment with these goals- In Saskatchewan, a set of learning goals exist since the revision of the mathematics curriculum began rolling out over ten years ago known as outcomes. Saskatchewan outcomes, as well as the outcomes of all other Western provinces, emphasize conceptual understanding, while the indicators of each outcome offer the content knowledge indicative of said outcome. Whether or not clear assessment exists, however, remains to be seen. Most prairie provinces, as well as BC, still utilize some sort of standardized testing method, although many provinces are decreasing the weighting of these exams, such as Alberta from 50% to 30%. British Columbia is currently looking at assessment models that do not include formal grades or even report cards. Continual, formative assessment is the solution given by Stigler and Hiebert (2009), but with rising student numbers and falling educational assistant (EA) numbers in classrooms, how are teachers going to create environments of continuous assessment?
  3. Restructure schools as places where teachers can learn- Unlike the first two points, creating an environment of learning for teachers is less obvious in schools. Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) are one way where teachers are invited to collaborate and cooperate together. In high schools, this is most often done in subject-specific areas. Unfortunately, from my experience, PLNs have the most success on paper and, unless supported properly by administration, are not successful. The biggest reasons for this, I’d argue, is because PLNs are not given enough time to grow, are forced to grow, and are not seen as being important for the overall development of the student. By meeting only once per month, PLNs are not provided with the opportunity for collaboration. By forcing PLNs, something evident in a school district that I work for, PLNs are not encouraged naturally, and many foster negative feeling towards them. The biggest deterrent, however, is lack of recognition of the effects of cooperation and collaboration on student learning. All teachers want their students to learn and to learn in the best possible way. If teachers knew PLNs could do that, perhaps they would focus more on them. The only solution to this is education, where teachers are continuously provided with the opportunities to develop and utilize proper researching techniques, even whilst teaching. If teaching is a profession, then it ought to be treated as such, where teachers hone researching skills to better develop their teaching and pedagogy. Unfortunately, in Canada, this is no the case.

As seen above, the recommendations made by Stigler and Hiebert (2009) are not without their direct implications in the Canadian classroom. Prior to reading The Teaching Gap, I believed completely in the overhaul of Western education and I believed that it would take a revolution to change it. However, although the overhaul is still necessary, instead it may come in the way of silent, subtle changes (e.g. consensus, clear learning goals, schools as environments for teachers to learn)- a thousand tiny ripples to create the tsunami.

 

References:

Stigler, J. W., & Hiebert, J. (2009). The teaching gap: Best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom. Simon and Schuster.


Developing a Profound Understanding of Mathematics

“If a teacher’s own knowledge of the mathematics taught in elementary school is limited to procedures, how could we expect his or her classroom to have a tradition of inquiry mathematics?”

– Liping Ma (1999)

After reading Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics, a study conducted by Liping Ma, I began to consider three things. First, how does the notion of stereotype play into our understanding of Chinese mathematics and American mathematics? Second, how do Canadian elementary teachers fair in regards to their understanding of elementary mathematics? Third, if Canada is down there with the States, how do we change? And fourth, is it possible to be both “limited by procedures” and limited by inquiry mathematics? This blog post will address the first three questions, and a future blog post will address the latter. Before getting into any of these questions, however, a brief summary of the study is necessary.

In her study, Ma details the apparent deficiencies of American teachers in elementary mathematics, compared to their Chinese counterparts. She does so through a series of well thought-out interviews with a number of participants, both who teach in the United States and China. Overall, she determined that many more Chinese teachers have a “profound understanding of fundamental mathematics” [PUFM] (p.120). PUFM is the combination of four principles: connectedness (the ability to make connections among and between mathematical concepts), multiple perspectives (the ability to be flexible towards mathematical approaches), basic ideas (the ability to be aware of principles of mathematics), and longitudinal coherence (the ability to recognize the interconnectedness of the entire mathematics curriculum and its applications). Although both groups had similar procedural knowledge in understanding many elementary topics, the Chinese group had a deeper PUFM, enabling them to encourage thought-provoking discussion amongst students to facilitate mathematical growth. Interestingly enough, when comparing the PUFM of the Chinese teachers and pre-service teachers, it became evident that the pre-service teachers had little PUFM. Rather, it was the current Chinese teachers who seemingly developed it while teaching, through colleagues, students, and self. Chinese teachers were “stimulated by a concern for what to teach and how to teach it, inspired and supported by their colleagues and teaching materials” (p. 143).

When I first began reading this study, I was initially struck by the obviousness of the entire study. Of course Chinese teachers are better at teaching mathematics than American teachers. It was the moment that I thought this that I began to look at both the study and my prejudice more critically. Why do I believe this to be true, before reading the entire paper? We (western society) have a general tendency to think of Asians as being good at math and their schools to be extremely rigid and rote in practice. Did this study support those notions? Partly. The Chinese mathematics teachers had a more in-depth understanding of mathematics and could, therefore, pass that understanding off to their students through facilitation. It seems, however, that the stereotype that the classrooms were more rigid that American classrooms is false. In fact, in the chapter about subtraction with regrouping, it seemed that the Chinese teachers were utilizing inquiry with manipulatives to teach it effectively, which included a large group discussion following the activity- a pivotal part to the discovery learning model. This instructional method was evident in all areas studied by Ma. So, although Chinese students are continually outperforming American students on international examinations, the reasonings do not lie in the rigidity of the mathematics curriculum in China. Rather, it seems they are a result of the PUFM of the teachers, which enables teachers to effectively utilize an inquiry model.

Another though that came up during this study, almost as immediate as my initial prejudice, is how well Canadian teachers would do in a study like this. Do Canadian teachers have PUFM? If not, why? Are we able to place American and Canadian teachers in the same deficit category? In the United States, in order to be a secondary mathematics teacher, you must obtain a mathematics degree and do a teacher-preparation course, which varies in length. To be a elementary teacher, you need a four-year degree in elementary education. The process to become a teacher is similar in Canada. However, during school, students are subjected to many more standardized tests in the US than in Canada, including SATs and NCLB. Unfortunately, rote memorization is often synonymous with studying for standardized tests, while critical thinking gets left on the curb. Since Canada is using fewer standardized tests (and none at a national level in high schools), where do Canadian preservice and in-service teachers fall? Unfortunately, I do not have answers to these questions, as the literature is quite limited on the topic. More limited is the information on how pre-service teachers, who have gone through the latest remodelling of the provincial mathematics curriculum in Saskatchewan understand mathematics and whether or not this is different than those who experienced the former version of the curriculum. These are important questions that need to be discussed because of the cyclic tendencies of teaching and learning. As Ma puts it,

It seems that low-quality school mathematics education and low-quality teacher knowledge of school mathematics reinforce each other. Teachers who do not acquire mathematical competence during schooling are unlikely to have another opportunity to acquire it (p. 145).

In order to effectively dismantle the cycle, Ma makes several suggestions, one of which is teacher preparation. Ma writes: “[Teacher preparation] may serve to break the circle”(p. 149). Currently, there is an understanding of elementary mathematics as low-level and basic. It is when we start to unpack what these words actually mean, and recognize that they are incredibly limiting with our preservice teachers and the students they will teach, can we begin to chip away at the succession of misunderstanding on mathematics. Like Ma, I believe that there are a number of different steps that need to be taken in order to ensure the success of a new tradition and cycle in mathematics education. However, possibly unlike Ma, I believe that this solution begins with teacher education. A teacher education program that focuses not only on mathematics content, but also attitudes of and abilities in mathematics is important. Because elementary education in Canada is not subject-specific (like the secondary programs), one cannot assume that pre-service students will appreciate or enjoy mathematics. Some may even have math anxiety, as many people do. This needs to be combatted during the four years of university, or it can be passed on to the students of future teachers.

Many questions arose as I read through Ma’s study. The questions raised are important to furthering the success of our elementary education programs in Canada. Currently, public opinion is quite dichotomous in regards to discovery-based mathematics. There are many academics, parents, and teachers who support inquiry-based learning. On the other end though, there are academics, parents, and teachers who are looking to “go back to the basics” in an effort to reintroduce fundamental mathematics through algorithms and formulae. I argue for a less binary examination of the problem and and more spectral look. It is not a matter of teaching one way or the other; it is a matter of teaching in ways the effectively reach the maximum number of students in a classroom. As Ma puts it:

…the change of a classroom mathematics tradition may not be a ‘revolution’ that simply throws out the old and adopts the new… the two traditions may not be absolutely agnostic to each other. Rather, the new tradition embraces the old” (p. 153).


Cultural Bias Meets Mathematics

“We were amazed at how much teaching varied across cultures and how little it varied within cultures.”

– Stigler and Hiebert (1999)

Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to wander through countless mathematics classrooms. Some were designed strictly for high school mathematics: motivational posters plastered on the walls, desks or paired tables in neat rows, a Smart board at the front of the room, and a hand-in bin for any assignments that needed to be corrected. Others were middle school classrooms: posters were brighter, occasionally desks weren’t in rows, but groups of four, a Smart board was still at the front of the room, and their wasn’t a hand-in bin. Others still were elementary classrooms: often carpeted, with one or two bulletin boards designated for learning math, geometric shapes smiling through neon colours, tables of four with rocking chairs or medicine balls for the students who needed to move, and a large 12 x 12 multiplication table at the front of the classroom, only half filled in because the third graders hadn’t yet learned 9 x 7. These rooms all had subtle differences: colours, desk orientation, places to hand in assignments. Yet, the larger similarities were more telling: whiteboards or Smart boards at the “front” of a rectangular classroom, pencils and paper found throughout, desks and chairs. And students’ faces. There faces tell the most important part of the story. When I would tell students to put away their books and take out their math textbooks, eyes would roll, voices would sigh, and bodies would close right up. Not every student behaves this way, but there are at least several in every class. Their body language alone tells me that they do not wish to be there in that classroom learning mathematics. Why?

The most common reaction I get from people when I explain to them that I have a math degree is, “Wow, congratulations! You must be so smart. I always hated math.” I typically brush it off the nervous laughter, while inside I’m screaming that the mathematics taught in schools is only the tip of a beautiful iceberg. An article in USA Today shares thoughts on why mathematics is a cause for great stress in people. In particular, it states that the push to get students to understand mathematics at a younger and younger age is problematic when they are not ready. For example, as of the 2015/2016 school year, students as young as eleven were learning algebra in Texas. According to the article, when students are not ready to push the envelope toward abstract concepts, they are more likely to fail. However, I challenge this notion with a program detailed in Out of the Labyrinth: Setting Mathematics Free by Robert and Ellen Kaplan. In the opening chapter, Kaplan and Kaplan describe how they worked with pre-elementary students to discover every number, from zero and one to irrational numbers. What’s more is that they did this without lecturing, instead teaching through the Math Circle. Without getting into specifics in this post, the Math Circle is a series of courses offered to students who wish to expand their ideas about mathematics. If small children have the ability to understand and grasp ideas of irrational numbers, a rather abstract concept, what is stopping them from understanding algebra at a young age as well?

Culture. Our culture has gotten in the way of allowing children the right to explore mathematics on their own time and in their own way. We are too caught up in ensuring that children have all the right answers, but are unwilling to let them discover when a solution they’ve given no longer works and needs adjustment. Save a few fundamental axioms, the mathematics we “teach” to third graders via white board and textbooks is attainable through inquiry, without having the awful side effect of curing curiosity. I am not saying that the memorization of certain mathematical concepts or use of certain formulae is not important. It is time to think beyond the binary of traditional vs discovery mathematics. It is time to embrace a planar view of mathematical knowledge, one that is not even as narrow as a one-dimensional spectrum, but rather a two-dimensional surface. As I read more through Stigler and Hiebert’s book, I realize that only when we decide to break the mathematical barriers that our culture we have created for our children, only then will our children be able to experience the beauty that is mathematics.


Where’s the Teaching Gap?

I’ve just begun reading the Teaching Gap, by James W. Stigler and James Hiebert (1999). There are two passages that resonate with me in the preface, even before I’ve gotten into the meat of the book. The first, discusses on a problem that has plagued modern education since its birth: “… just recruiting more qualified or talented teachers doesn’t lead to improved teaching… In mathematics… teaching now looks pretty much like it did 100 years ago. Why?” (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999, p. xiii) The second passage responds to that question, “Most teachers continue the tradition [emphasis added] of teaching and use the same methods” (p. xiii). It’s safe to say that the most popular teaching methods utilized in classrooms today are considered traditional. We still view a classroom as a rectangular room with rows of desks and a teacher at the whiteboard, pardon me- Smartboard. What words does a classroom like this invoke? Typical. Order. Quiet. Individual. Yet, we can now also imagine classrooms that don’t look like this. Not only can we imagine them, but we can remember them. Whether it’s a completely different way of approaching education than the West, like the Montessori method, or public school teachers redesigning their classrooms, like Kathy Cassidy, a shift towards student-centered facilitating and learning has begun. The first time you step into these other learning spaces, words like “typical,” and “order” are tossed out the window, replaced by imaginativecreative, and (my favourite) chaotic. 

Why does order prevail when it’s paired with individual and quiet? One of the most prevalent arguments for learning in a purely traditional sense is to prepare children for the “real world.” In what world today are adults sitting in rows of desks, unable to speak to one another out of fear of being reprimanded? If our humanity has taught us anything, it’s that we work better in groups: cooperation, collaboration, community. We also know that this can get a little chaotic, but if it can lead us towards greatness, then embracing the chaos is the best thing we can do. We often equate “order” and “quiet” with learning, and think of “chaos” as the antithesis of learning. Why? Because somehow our cultural routines became more than routines. They became traditions, not based on anything, but themselves.

Stigler and Hiebert (1999) provide an approach for questioning these habits and the effects they have on the classroom. They call for a:

“shift [in] focus from teachers to teaching… What does it mean to focus on teaching?… becoming aware of the cultural routines that govern classroom life, questioning the assumptions that underlie these routines, and working to improve these routines over time. It means that recognizing that the details of what teachers do… are the things that matter for students’ learning… and that all these details of teaching are choices teachers make” (p. xiii).

To enable this shift demands the help from preservice programs, to encourage up-and-coming teachers to be more reflective on their pedagogies, to question where they have come from, and to grow outwardly.

In general, I consider myself a teacher, although not a typical contracted one, whose future lies in a public school classroom. This summer, as I work to solidify an idea for my thesis, I’ve been given the opportunity to teach a university-level mathematics course. I started with forty-five students. I’m in a lecture-theatre and the only pieces graded from students are quizzes and exams. The final is worth 50%. I feel as though I’ve been forced into tradition. The course syllabus is one page, unlike the hundreds of pages of curricular content for K-12 mathematics. I’m struggling with how to break the tradition, because it doesn’t seem enough to stand in front of 40+ students, many of whom suffer from math and test anxiety, low confidence in mathematics, and a lack of mathematical foundation. The Western ideologies of mathematics education have not worked, thus far, for my students, so why should I, the department, or my Faculty, expect that it should work now? “The most alarming aspect of classroom teaching… is not how we are teaching now but that we have no mechanism for getting better” (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999, p. xix)

 

References:

Stigler, J. W., & Hiebert, J. (1999). The teaching gap: Best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom. New York: Free Press.

 


Mathematics is Un-Knowing

What are the expectations we have on mathematics teachers across Canada? Is there a difference in expectation for secondary mathematics teachers and elementary mathematics teachers? If so, why?

Me at the Canadian Undergraduate Mathematics Conference (2013)
Me at the Canadian Undergraduate Mathematics Conference (2013)

What are the expectations we have on our children throughout their academic careers, particularly related to mathematics? What types of skills do we expect our students to develop as they go through mathematics in Canada? Are these skills categorized based on age, grade-level, and/or comprehension, or should they be valued on a continuum, where students develop naturally and without a five-hundred page document telling them what they should know?

Many of these questions may seem obvious. We expect greatness from teachers. In particular, we expect our mathematics teachers to instil mathematical prowess in students, often in the form of mathematical reasoning and problem solving. Our secondary mathematics teachers should  understand the mathematics that they are teaching, similar to our elementary mathematics teachers. Yet, their knowledge banks should look different. A secondary mathematics teacher should have a deep understanding of algebra, fractions, and graphs. Our elementary mathematics teachers should know addition, multiplication, and basic shapes. The reasoning is simple, almost redundant. Teaching demands understanding- history teachers know history, biology teachers know biology, etc.

What this frame of thinking leaves out is the inherent properties of mathematics. What is mathematics but a gigantic structure, one that contains a foundation- pivotal ideas that must be understood before the full value of mathematics can be realized. If mathematics demands a foundation, then perhaps the teaching of mathematics demands more than the understanding of the curriculum. If a math teacher is teaching fractional division of rational numbers, is it not important to comprehend fractions, division, and the ever-elusive idea of ‘the whole’? How does this relate to the division of rational expressions? Does it relate at all?

In terms of the inherent properties of mathematics, who decides them? Regardless of whether or not mathematics is invented or discovered (although this is a fascinating topic to discuss), determining how mathematicians determine what a mathematical foundation looks like is important and charged with cultural bias. For the West, the structure that represents mathematical knowledge is a pyramid, with basic arithmetic skills and algebra at the bottom, and pure math resting on top. For other cultures, however, the power of mathematics lies in its applicability. Who is right? Is someone right? Are we both wrong?

Photo credit: http://www.relatably.com/q/math-quotes
Photo credit: http://www.relatably.com/q/math-quotes

If we can all agree that there exists a foundation for mathematics that is itself mathematics, when is it appropriate that children should understand a particular concept. Is it appropriate at all? At some point, a line must be drawn. Why? Because if mathematics has a foundation, then it is important to teach it to children before they can fully understand the complexity and beauty of mathematics. What if, however, through learning concepts beyond the foundation, that understanding the foundation is made more obvious? If this is true, then what is a mathematics curriculum but a prescribed way of learning disguised by the theory of multiple intelligences.

Photo credit: https://www.tumblr.com/search/maths%20quotes
Photo credit: https://www.tumblr.com/search/maths%20quotes

For what multiple intelligences does not account for is the sequence at which a learner learns, discovers, and understands. If it is true that different students better learn when taught through (a) particular method(s), such as visually or kinesthetically, then the sequence of learning may also matter. Furthermore, the foundation of mathematics could be more complex than initially thought.

What are the consequences of this on teaching? Is it enough that elementary mathematics teachers understand ‘elementary mathematics’ and high school teachers understand a ‘little bit more than elementary mathematics’? Currently, professional teaching programs across Canada reflect the idea that elementary mathematics teachers need to know less math than their secondary counterparts. In addition, as reflected

Photo credit: http://www.basicknowledge101.com/subjects/math.html
Photo credit: http://www.basicknowledge101.com/subjects/math.html

by many programs, it is imperative that secondary mathematics teachers understand calculus. Why? Because through knowing calculus, teachers will better understand high school mathematics. In fact, elementary mathematics teachers are even encouraged to understand a little beyond the mathematics they are teaching. Why?

The questions asked in this post are not rhetorical; rather, they are important questions that have been and need to be researched in order to encourage change in mathematics teaching in school. Whether they have solutions remains to be seen, but as my math philosophy goes: “The solution is the least important step to understanding mathematics. Rather, it is the process that holds significance. Above all, however, is the idea that there are always multiple processes to the same solution.”